Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Archive for the ‘Domestic Politics’ Category

From Pollutant to Purifier: Identity Politics and the Class Comeback

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Domestic Politics on May 7, 2013 at 10:36 am

2593-Niall Ferguson (internet)

I’m not sure if you noticed, but last week the famous conservative historian, Niall Ferguson, made some offensive remarks about John Maynard Keynes at “the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors.” The gist of what he said was that because Keynes was a homosexual, he had no generative commitments to coming generations and he therefore cared little how they would suffer under his feckless policies. I don’t intend to pile on Ferguson and have nothing to add about his cultural views (nor do I know if Keynes was, in fact, gay), but I think Ferguson’s widely publicized PR implosion is a signal of what may be the most profound transition in symbolic politics that we will live through together.

Let me explain. As you must know by now if you have heard of my book, The Eclipse of Equality, I believe that we are in a moment of axiological transition, in which the values based on countering the abusive power of concentrated wealth—class values—have been eclipsed by libertarian values on the right and multicultural values on the left. I think that, under pressure of non-ignorable circumstances, class values are poised to make some kind of comeback. The comeback may play out on either the Democratic or Republican side, but either way, it will fill the vacuum we now experience.

This eclipse and the need for a class comeback was produced by a conjuncture of historical events that enabled opportunistic elites to downplay concerns about their economic power and its occasionally adverse influence on middle class livelihoods by exploiting cultural, racial and sub-cultural bigotry through the Nixon era to our own to promote anti-public sector, anti-labor, pro-business policies. In essence, lifestyles that had been positioned outside of the mainstream—black, youth, poor, feminist, gay, etc.—could be tagged or foisted onto progressive economic policies, “polluting” those once popular policies in the process with negative moral and symbolic associations. In this way, programs that benefitted the non-wealthy and economically exposed like old age and medical insurance, collective bargaining, Keynesian economic stimulus, and especially temporary assistance (aka welfare) were marketed as misguided, anti-American, and even immoral. Read the rest of this entry »


Greed is a Grievance: Hate, Greed and the Meaning of Equality in the 21st Century

In Class and Social Stratification, Collective and Chosen Trauma, Culture, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Tolerance on April 30, 2013 at 10:46 am


As you must know by now, I’ve just written a book about public struggles over the meaning of a just society with an intriguing title, The Eclipse of Equality. The title is catchy, but it also a bit misleading. I know that many in my audience will gravitate toward or be repulsed by it based on our collective tendency to think about equality in the ways that we typically do, but there is an irony embedded in this title that I ought to explain or you will miss the whole point.

First, the standard story. What you likely imagine when I say that we have lived through an eclipse of equality is a story about the career of hatred in the modern world and the ways that dominant groups have used their hatred infused privilege to exploit and dominate others, even to the present day. Anticipating my turn to conversations about the economy, you might therefore expect that my book is about the enduring structural and systemic legacies of that hatred and our collective failure to address them. It is that book, in part, but the thesis also plays on a level beneath that common reading that qualifies and reframes the standard interpretation.

I argue that at the same time that we have become increasingly clever in recognizing the abusive powers of white, male, Christian, straight, abled privilege, we have forgotten how to think, feel and argue well about economic inequality thought of in its own terms. To suggest that there are enticing alternatives to be explored in comparative capitalisms comes off as odd and distracting in too many of our conversations. We have lived through an eclipse of the moral category of equality and this means that we have lost the ability to creatively imagine the world of material scarcity.

Consider this a family intervention: we need to face that we as a society no longer care much about economic equality. In fact, we’re kind of cool with the way things are playing out. Of course, we think we care about equality, but the way we talk about it proves that we really care about is just about anything but. When we speak about equality today, we always inflect it with other clarifying words that show where our red lines are drawn: tolerance, inclusion, identity and diversity. Read the rest of this entry »

Paradigms of Injustice: Bureaucrats, Bigwigs, Bigots and the Lessons of Google Books

In Class and Social Stratification, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 26, 2013 at 3:17 pm


I’ve noticed that there is something tricky about my eclipse of equality thesis. It is tricky to explain to my conservative friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-government imagery, ideas and symbols. It is tricky to explain to my liberal friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-supremacist imagery, ideas, and symbols.

Both of these sets of colleagues might be right, but I hope that both are, in fact, wrong. What I think the eclipse of equality lens allows to begin to see is how a coherent plan for a just society requires us to balance our concern with the full spectrum of abusive powers that are arrayed against us and to plan institutions that have the balancing power to make those forces more useful than (ab)useful. The insight is that while planning authorities, wealthy entrepreneurs and ethical codifiers are all good things in one sense—they provide us with order, growth and morality respectively—they also invariably overreach, becoming villainous bureaucrats, bigwigs and bigots in the narratives that constitute our perspective on the just society.  My conservative friends fear the bureaucrat. My liberal friends fear the bigot. Both of them fear the vilification of the bigwig, which they associate with either Marxist Socialism on the conservative and reactionary populism on the liberal side. This helps to lock us into a pattern that makes it very difficult to articulate compelling popular ideas that challenge the concentration of economic power in precipitously few hands.

For the moment, I will postpone the argument about the objective data of class polarization and focus instead on how our value system and narrative ecology has evolved in this period of spiraling inequality. One has to be very careful in making attributions of causal direction when analyzing time series, or historical, data of the kind I will present here, but I think the drift in certain word choices in books printed in American English as represented in Google books might give us a supporting body of data to complement the deeply qualitative case I make in Eclipse about what is going on and why.

Consider Figure 1. You see here the result of a Google search using the incredibly seductive NGRAM Viewer application. I am deeply suspicious of many uses of this application for natural language or quantitative content analysis; in my own experience with it, the older dates are riddled with errors and there are odd patterns of what Google considered to be books. I am not clear about exactly what qualifies as a book for Google, but Life magazine seems to make the cut, as does a bound set of journals and other unorthodox sources. Taking these caveats in mind, Google books NGRAM is a mind-blowing application for purposes of mapping culture as the authors well advertised and it may help to put my arguments in context.

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Analyzing Discourse: A Methodological Note

In Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 23, 2013 at 10:26 am

Eclipse of Equality

As part of the celebration of the release of my new book The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I thought it might be helpful to share in broad outline how I put together the analysis there, something the space requirements of the manuscript did not allow in the book itself. I won’t go into great detail, but I hope this will be helpful to any of my students who have an interest in cobbling together some similar an analysis in their own work.

Step 1: The Puzzle Trap

The first priority in a journey of this kind is to find a coherent stream of discourse that you would like to analyze—some discursive arena on which to set your attention. For me, this came easily. In all of my political work on the United States, and throughout my academic career, I have found it necessary to keep myself grounded by watching the Sunday shows: Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, This Week, Face the Nation etc. At first, I didn’t think much about why these shows were so important in grounding my perspectives on survey work or for my teaching, but it was always true.

I remember in one of my early job interviews talking about how I anchored the codes for my dissertation work (a massive content analysis on the association of open-ended themes and Presidential party vote in the National Election Studies (NES)) in the Sunday morning debates. The literature in the top journals was essential to getting a bead on what mattered in American politics, but what that kind of immersion provided me was what I would now call a set of puzzles that were relevant from the point of view of the scholars rather than a set of problems that real people were confronting in their lives as practical politicians.

This contrast between the puzzles we spin and the problems our subjects manage is the first methodological insight. If you want actionable results in your social science, you can’t rely on the way you and your colleagues frame the problems (in terms of puzzles in the literature), but rather an immediate sense of how the participants frame them as problems they themselves confront, and they frame them in their own rhetorical forms. When you take these forms seriously, you find that the boundary between pure and applied research begins to dissolve and the relevance of your work increases immensely, this at the expense of veering close to the social science/journalism boundary.

This puzzle/problem distinction is a fine point, but it is easiest to see if you have had any experience in framing a survey question. Read the rest of this entry »

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


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.

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Beyond Racial Reductionism: Let’s talk about race.

In Collective and Chosen Trauma, Culture, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 28, 2012 at 7:45 am

Remember back in 2008 when Colin Powell went on Meet the Press and made huge news in endorsing the first African American Presidential nominee from a major American political party? It was a much bigger deal than when he did it again the other day. His comments in 2008 were powerful. Among them were the following:

“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian,” he said. “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

In other words he was outraged that the Republican Party was demonizing the guy with coded language that not only was incorrect, but also toxic for civil peace and economic prosperity. Part of why General Powell supported the president was that he was different from other people and it was important to stand with when that basis of difference was attacked in coded or direct language.

Fast forward to last Thursday and we have John Sununu attacking Powell’s 2012 endorsement because he said it could be explained, in part, by his reflexive support for a race comrade. As Charles Blow put it in the New York Times this Saturday, this has all the hallmarks of race coded language and smacks of what he calls racial reductionism. I totally get what Blow is trying to do with this piece and I am sympathetic to it. With his unique position at the Times, he is in a better position than anyone else to denounce race baiting attacks in the public sphere and to match these comments with clarifying data that provide the educated reader with statistical support of an unorthodox kind for the argument. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s the Congress, Stupid: How Obama Won and why Romney’s Winning

In Class and Social Stratification, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 17, 2012 at 8:57 am

Like everyone else, I’m trying to decide what I think about the Presidential debate last night. Having just processed the revised draft of media interpretations this morning, I think one thing is now clear: Obama won the debate last night. He won it in several ways: He fought back and looked like he cared; he tripped up Romney on substantive points of partisan division; he deftly branded Romney a prevaricator; he stared him down on foreign policy in Libya; and he ended the show with a compelling dig about the 47%.

Even so, Obama is losing the fight. I still consider Obama the favorite to win the November contest, but even if he does win, he rather limps over the finish line unless he can mobilize a compelling narrative about how the economy works and what progressives would do with it to improve American and global standards of living.

You know what I mean. Many of you are dedicated Obama supporters and went into this debate breathless and perspiring in dread of a repeat performance of the first debate. When Obama fought back, you were excited and even more relieved, but when the topic came to the economy and what the candidates would do with it, you thought, “Obama’s not as good on this as he should be.”

Switch to the other side for a moment. For those who went into this debate skeptical or even critical of the President, Obama looked awful on the economy. His holster appears empty. He comes armed only with arguments about what kind of tax cut he would pursue and what measures he would take to shrink the deficit. It’s like he’s searching for the best rock ballad to sing in the Sunday choir. The form doesn’t fit the context.

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Joe Says it a’int so: Biden’s debate performance stops the bleeding

In Class and Social Stratification, Development, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 12, 2012 at 9:23 am

Nothing serves to pull a writer into the public conversation like a campaign cage match. This is precisely what brings me back to the blogosphere, because that is what we saw last night when Joe Biden won the sole Vice Presidential debate the way  Mitt Romney did, by simply being himself and not the caricature of himself that he plays on our TVs.

Biden was last night what he always has been, the elder statesman with a heart, not the bufoon his critics make him out to be. What you learn in watching Joe Biden perform is that some people come off better in long sittings than in soundbites. Biden is a high mean, high variance performer and it simply isn’t helpful to pillory him for verbal slips. It is the central tendency of the sentiment that carries with him and this was on display in this debate in a way that has been missing to this point in the campaign and perhaps in the President’s whole term. Last night, Joe showed up to say it a’int so and if you had the ears to hear, you heard something that will matter for your life for quite some time.

Here is the key moment:

And I’ve never met two guys who’re more down on America across the board. We’re told everything’s going bad. There are 5.2 million new jobs, private-sector jobs. We need more, but 5.2 million – if they’d get out of the way, if they’d get out of the way and let us pass the tax cut for the middle class, make it permanent, if they get out of the way and pass the – pass the jobs bill, if they get out of the way and let us allow 14 million people who are struggling to stay in their homes because their mortgages are upside down, but they never missed a mortgage payment, just get out of the way. Stop talking about how you care about people. Show me something. Show me a policy. Show me a policy where you take responsibility…And now, all of a sudden, these guys are so seized with the concern about the debt that they created.

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Use the Force: On Ideological Bias in Social Psychology

In Collective and Chosen Trauma, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History on February 9, 2011 at 10:00 am

When I read the New York Times yesterday, I couldn’t decide if I should be excited or disturbed. The occasion was  the otherwise fascinating article by John Tierney on the way that moral arguments have introduced political bias into the field of social psychology. Haidt is one of my favorite social psychologists and I think his work on intuitive primacy and social intuition is as helpful as social science can be. I did not attend the meetings in which his talk was delivered,  so I decided to check his own site to see what was there and found a reproduction of his talk called “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology.” I would recommend that anyone with an interest in political misunderstandings take a look at it.  The upshot is that our moral worldviews are shaped by sacred values that act like a moral force field. Haidt is a real Durkheimian and has learned much from sociology (think for a second about why there is a journal called Social Forces). This is part of what makes his work so compelling.

If the Haidt talk goes somewhat astray, it is not in being wrong but in presenting an incomplete picture. One can walk away from the talk (and certainly from Tierney’s article) with the view that only the moral systems dedicated to fighting ascriptive causes like racism and sexism act as blinding moral force fields. The larger point that Haidt knows (and often says) is that all moral systems work that way. This is what it means to have a vision and to have values. You believe in something because it appeals to your conscience. You believe in it because you feel deeply that it is right and that things that work against it are wrong. If you are to be a moral person (which you can’t really opt out of anyway), you cannot escape this condition. But the Haidt talk (but certainly not his broader research) can be read as misleading in that it restricts the scope of blinding moral force to the fight against racism. Of course the struggle against what Rogers Smith has called “Ascriptive Americanism” has taken on the binding and blinding form it has : that is what a moral worldview does for us. The same is true of beliefs in the rule of law, freedom of expression, consent of the governed and even the sacredness of property. These are all elements of binding and blinding moral force fields as well.  What is distinctive about these is that they are often held to be sacred on the right as well as on the left. You have to bear this in mind while listening to Haidt’s talk or it could seem like he is attacking the civil rights movement rather than making a far more general and radical argument.

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The NAACP and the Tea Party: The need for civil repair

In Domestic Politics on July 18, 2010 at 11:18 am

When leaders of the NAACP made public statements about race and the Tea Party, it drew a lot of attention and has subsequently produced quite a bit of debate.  Each side has been using accusations of racism against the other and some of these displays have been predictably strange. I have argued that the Tea Party is not a formally racist organization (although no one can doubt that it is surfacing racist sentiments), but that it is motivated by an assimilationist tendency of which many people in it may be unaware. These tendencies should be discussed so that we know what it is that people are fighting about. I think that we are closer to understanding one another across the racial divide than ever, even if it feels like we are falling apart. Racial suspicion keeps us from doing many other things that the country requires, and so we have to unfreeze the conflict by bringing the poison out in the open.

In the end, I think that the statement by the NAACP is measured and carefully worded. The organization has capitalized on a great opportunity to stimulate the national conversation on race that we have longed to have. We need to see race without seeing red, and all Americans need to understand that whoever takes back their country, cannot take it back to a situation in which only specific ways of life are respected . They also need to recognize that demands to take the country back sound like they are more about culture than they are about economic policy, and that rightly offends people.

As painful as it is for us to name racial bias, we have to do it, and we should do so in a way that opens up possibilities for what Jeffrey Alexander calls “civil repair.”  By this he means opening up the public space of solidarity to those who have been wrongfully excluded from it. We have moved a long way down this path with respect to race, but the structural legacies and residual indignities that resulted from previous exclusion are far from behind us. I think one piece of what makes this so painful is the fact that it takes so long. The lunch counter sit-ins that Ms. Maddow confronted candidate Rand Paul with after his primary victory are celebrating their 50th year. That is a long time and much has changed since then, but racial inequalities persist as do cross race suspicions. There is likely to be as much work still to be done.

One reason for hope can be found in the fact that in this discussion, the forces of civil repair are empowered and they are behaving well, even though I am sure that these paroxysms strain patience. Read the rest of this entry »