Emerging Issues: “Jeremiads on Class and the Nation’s Future: Inequality II”

April 2, 2012
by Bill Barnes

There's not much that's cheerful in Charles Murray's "Coming Apart" or Thomas Edsall's "Age of Austerity": no Fred and Ginger, no Ozzie and Harriet. No "Morning in America."

Both authors say that the nation is sharply, deeply and disastrously divided by class. Both significantly broaden the conversation about disparities in income and wealth, though in quite different directions. (See related Nation's Cities Weekly article, "Some People are More Equal than Others."

Neither offers solutions. Both are looking instead for underlying dynamics. Edsall, a New Deal liberal, would agree with Murray, a libertarian and cultural conservative, that the first priority is "to look unblinkingly at the nature of the problem." 

Murray would agree with Edsall that "the stakes could not be higher." Both books are gloomy about the future of the nation. The adjective "apocalyptic" comes to mind. 

Judging by the considerable attention given to these books in media patronized by the chattering classes, it seems that jeremiads have a certain appeal amidst our current slough of despond. 

This column considers Edsall's book. Next week: Murray's.

Haves and Have-Nots

Edsall reports that the crisis of the past few years has exacerbated long-standing conflicts, resulting in "pitched battles between haves and have-nots" that have "enveloped political discourse at every level." The Democratic and Republican parties are "enmeshed in a death struggle to protect the benefits and goods that flow to their respective bases." Since the mid-1970s, sharp increases in political polarization are closely correlated with increasing income inequality.

He thinks it's "an open question" whether the nation can continue to translate explosive issues into "political combat rather than violence." Thus, the 2012 federal elections are "the most ideologically consequential since 1932." 

Edsall describes the GOP as the "conservative white party," the core of which is "married white Christians" (whose percentage of the electorate declined from nearly 80 percent in the 1950s to just above 40 percent now.) In the 2010 Republican electoral triumphs, he reports, 88.8 percent of GOP votes in House races were cast by whites.

Republican leaders, Edsall says, see the 2012 election as "a last-ditch chance" to institutionalize electoral dominance before increases in Black and Hispanic voting populations create an enduring Democratic majority (a demographic scenario that has been popular with Democratic-leaning analysts).

Edsall's take on all this is recurrently partisan, which is jarring for the contemplative reader and renders some of the arguments less compelling than his earlier work, especially "The New Politics of Inequality"(1984) and "Chain Reaction"(1991). It's too bad, because he has interesting stuff to report. 

Edsall is most engaging and persuasive when he is doing hard-headed analysis of how electoral politics and policy interact with collisions of issues like race, rights, immigration and taxes with ideology and values. Edsall's "haves," for example, are not merely the income rich: elderly Medicare and Social Security recipients "have" their benefits and are determined that they will keep them. 

Moral Underpinnings

In extended analyses of the "moral underpinnings of partisan conflict," Edsall marshals polling and other research to describe the ideologies and values of "two developing coalitions" - Republicans, "representing established forces in America and those who identify with them" and Democrats, composed of "the once-marginalized, seeking entry into the mainstream and those who identify with the underdog." Edsall explores the paradoxes and complexities that involve people's identification with each coalition. He reports, at length, research by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues suggesting that liberals' thinking touches a narrower range of moral concerns than conservatives'. (Haidt's work is now a book, "The Righteous Mind.")

The two-coalition dichotomy dominates the analysis. In contrast to politicos for whom the moderate center and "swing voters" are the key, for Edsall the 2012 election is a zero-sum game between the two parties' bases. 

Edsall seems irked at the Republicans' willingness to "inflict harm" on have-not populations by using the debt-and-deficit vise (the "austerity" of the book's title) to squeeze out redistributive spending. He is acutely disappointed at the Democrats for accepting that vise as the frame for policy debate. 

He doubts that the nation will escape this vise without "brutality, coarseness and the fracture of American politics." 

The Welfare State

Edsall deplores the attacks on the New Deal and its descendant, the weak American version of the welfare state. For him, poverty, "marginalization" and inequality constitute the problem. 

In contrast, Murray deplores the U.S. version of the "European welfare state," arguing that it creates dependency and undermines what he calls the "founding virtues." For him, cultural decay and the loss of virtue constitute the problem. 

To the extent that these viewpoints reflect a radical disagreement within the American polity about the very nature of the problems we face, you might ask whether we would be better served by leaders and thinkers trying to clarify the relationships among those problems before we enlist in all-out wars about specific solutions. 

You might ask whether this either/or debate ought to have some greater complexity to it.

But then, if you do ask, you might also get clobbered, trampled and derided while the Solutions Warriors talk past each other and wage their "death struggle." But maybe it's worth taking the risk. 

Next week's column will focus on Murray's book. Bill Barnes, the director for emerging issues at NLC, can be reached at barnes@nlc.org. Previous monthly columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage.