Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Equal Protection and the Politics of Difference

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Tolerance on February 23, 2013 at 11:18 am

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In preparation for the release of my new book, The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I have decided to return to the blogging business. The central claim of that book is that we have lived through a temporary shift in political emphases in which equality, one of the canonical categories of the moral imagination, has been allowed to atrophy. When we speak about equality today, we tend not to speak about equality itself, understood in non-ascriptive and universalistic terms, but rather about tolerance, inclusion and diversity in terms of their points of intersection with equality per se–hence the vogue of intersectionality. Equality and tolerance are related principles, but they differ in relation to the abusive power they were designed to oppose. My book is worth a read, because this confusion of categories leaves us unprepared to deal with our most pressing problems like uncivil communication, democratic gridlock and soaring rates of inequality.

Let me explain what I mean with a story. Back when I was in graduate training to become a professional sociologist, I used to suggest to my students that they would soon live through the rise of the LGBT movement as the central civil rights cause of our day. Even liberal sociology students back then were typically skeptical of my claim and we often politely moved on to other topics. In my personal life, I thought that people ought to be more aware of the centrality of this cause and so, when I was invited to join the Human Rights Campaign some time around 2002, whose logo you see rotated above, I put the sticker they gave me up on a kitchen door just as you see it represented there. Perhaps I was thinking of 9/11 or maybe I just didn’t like being bothered with swag, but this logo hung orthogonal to its meaning in my house for some time. It never occurred to me to rotate it and read the message as equality for gay people, even though my major field of study was the study of inequality. The problem struck me not as one of a inequality, read class, but one of intolerance. I thought what was needed was something like tolerance for religious difference–safeguards against state establishment of heterosexuality and the prohibition of free exercise of alternative sexualities.

Was I simply befuddled? Maybe, but the point is that even though I then spent all day thinking about inequality, I thought about it in terms of occupational stratification and class structure, not in terms of what are called ascriptive qualities (race, color, creed, gender, sexuality, etc) and distinctions of social status. And I was on to something, as were all of those who then thought about equality primarily in terms of class struggle and the occupational structure. Ascriptive distinctions were obviously crucial to study of equality as well and I was moved by these causes personally, but they were separable if not separate from analytical considerations of economic relations.

Fast forward to now and it seems bizarre that I ever could misread that campaign logo. When we speak about equality today, we think not about the property divisions between families that drove enlightenment era revolutionaries like James Madison to draft the American Constitution, but rather in terms of what reconstruction era reformers thought about how to interpret the 14th Amendment. Madison wrote in Federalist 10:

So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.

Madison knew that people could be cast into mutual animosity by consideration of distinctions of what we would now call identity, but his analysis of civil vices turned on the property question and how to mitigate its pernicious effects. Intolerance of difference was a dire problem, but inequality of property between the few and the multitude might lead to a “general conflagration” if not managed properly.

After the civil war, when legislators confronted the great problem of incorporating freed slaves into democratic society, it was noted that it would be necessary to ensure for “the equal protection of the laws,” and the famous Fourteenth Amendment was enacted and when we speak of equality today, most clearly exemplified in the brilliant Human Rights Campaign logo, we channel more the Fourteenth Amendment then we do Federalist 10 or to the First Amendment with sanction of tolerance for religious difference (the prototype of group rights in the United States).

In short, as a consequence of the long and tortured history of grappling with african slavery and racism, we confuse equality with tolerance and along the way lost our capacity to think clearly about the use and distribution of property. It is a simple point, but one that we are now disinclined to recognize. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we now see much progress in matters of tolerance, but not much when it comes to ensuring equality among clusters of occupations.

Quoting a famous economist, I like to say that things that can’t go on forever, don’t. The eclipse is passing, but when it finally does, I hope we retain some of our former capacity to see.

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