Four years ago, I was invited to take part in the half century celebration of the establishment of Social Studies, an undergraduate interdisciplinary major at Harvard of which I was the first Head Tutor. As long-time readers of this blog may recall, the affair was hi-jacked by a flap over some really ugly statements made by the always loathsome Marty Peretz, who was associated with Social Studies for some years and is remembered fondly by such faux progressives as E. J. Dionne. I ended up having to revise my remarks at the lunch that day in order to express my dismay at Harvard’s readiness to accept donations to fund a scholarship honoring Peretz [without too much trouble I found an appropriate quotation from Das Kapital for the occasion], and it was those harsh comments that drew such attention as my talk garnered. But my original intention had been to praise Social Studies for requiring its students to read some of the classic works of social theory – by Marx, Weber, Mannheim, and Durkheim – in which the central theme is the distinction between surface social appearance and underlying social reality. That distinction, I noted, had all but disappeared from modern Political Sociology, which contents itself with opinion surveys that examine every detail of what people believe, without ever asking why they so often believe what is manifestly untrue.
All of this went through my mind as I read an an Op Ed essay in the NY TIMES by Thomas B. Edsall called The Coming Democratic Schism. Edsall focuses on a number of opinion surveys of White voters who are reliable supporters of the Democratic Party. The older White Democrats – forty-eight and up --strongly believe that you cannot get ahead in this country by hard work alone, that the economic disadvantage suffered by Blacks is a result of discrimination, that the government should do more to ameliorate economic inequality, and so forth. They also strongly support the social agenda of the Democratic Party – Gay Rights, Women’s Rights, etc. The younger White Democratic Party supporters – thirty-eight and under – share this support for the social agenda, but differ markedly on economic issues. For example, “77 percent of the younger ‘next generation left’ believes that you can get ahead if you are willing to work hard,” as compared with “the older ‘solid liberal’ group, 67 percent [of whom] responded that hard work is no guarantee of success.” And so forth.
The point of Edsall’s column is that the younger Democratic Party supporters have pretty much given up the belief of their elders in the systemic or structural causes of the inequalities that characterize American society. But their solid support for the social agenda makes them virtually unreachable by a Republican Party that continues to make the social issues central to its message.
All of that is no doubt very striking, but Edsall simply never asks the really interesting question, which is, Why do the younger voters hold a set of beliefs that are so completely at odds with reality? They are not stupid. They are probably reasonably well-educated. I would imagine they pay attention to public affairs, and yet their beliefs are completely at odds with the facts. Surely that is what cries out for explanation.
First of all, a few elementary facts. In the past forty years, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States, in constant dollars, has increased by roughly 225 percent – i.e., it has a good deal more than doubled. Measured in 2013 dollars, the GDP was about seven and a half trillion dollars in 1973, and was close to seventeen trillion dollars in 2013. Over the same forty years, median household income in constant dollars [i.e. the household income below which fall half of all the households in America] has increased by only five percent. This is a truly astonishing datum. It might be put this way: After forty years of hard work, the efforts of the entire country are combining to produce an additional nine and a half trillion dollars of wealth per year, and virtually all of that nine and a half trillion dollars is going to the top half of American households – none of it is “trickling down” to the bottom half. To put the same point another way, the top half of households are more than twice as well off as they were forty years ago; the bottom half are no better off than they were forty years ago. What is more, intergenerational social mobility is lower in the United States than in France, Germany, or Great Britain, three countries thought by Americans to be more weighed down by tradition and inherited status than our open, free American society.
So the really interesting question not asked by Edsall is why younger white supporters of the Democratic Party so badly misperceive their own personal life chances and economic situation.
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I have a suspicion, which I will share with you. It is impossible to grasp the social reality in which one lives without some theoretical conceptual framework. This is true even of supposedly simple societies – small, rural, economically primitive. [I have argued this at length in my tutorial, “How to Study Society,” available on box.net by following the link at the top of this blog.] The theoretical insights into the deep structural inequality of capitalism of Marx and the other classical social theorists made their way into American public discourse, in part via the union movement, and for a long while in the first two thirds of the last century helped hundreds of millions of Americans to make sense of their immediate social and economic situation. But that complex ideological demystification came under assault two generations ago, and has now all but disappeared from the collective consciousness of Americans. As a consequence, those born and brought up since the Seventies really lack any organized conceptual framework within which to make sense of their world.
What they see most immediately is that their economic well-being is not protected either by the collective action of their fellow workers or by the government actions of Democratic congresses and presidential administrations. Is their fate dependent on “hard work?” Oh yes, indeed. Their access to scarce and ill-paid jobs depends on competition against countless other aspirants. What they cannot see without the appropriate conceptual framework is that their stagnant prospects are, taken as a whole, a consequence of the exploitative structure of capitalism, not a result of inadequate effort on their part.
It is not at all surprising that this Ayn Rand-esque understanding of the economy coexists in them with the most progressive commitment to social issues. As I have many times argued on this blog, capitalism is quite comfortable with the elimination of legal discrimination against women or Latinos or African-Americans or gay and lesbian men and women. It is only uncomfortable with anything that interrupts the steady, reliable exploitation of the working class, and the consequent accumulation of capital.