My thesis is that the United States is moving simultaneously toward and away from social equality, and that the tension between the two movements is to a large degree responsible for the present social and political mood. The movement toward equality is expressed in rising living standards, and it has been significantly accelerated in our time by ‘broad trends in the economy, the New Deal, World War II, and the current mixture of defense spending and welfare programming that constitutes the Warfare-Welfare State. The movement away from equality is represented in certain types of conspicuous consumption, anti-civil rights sentiment, and political behavior. I will also argue that the latter movement has been partly responsible for the failure of radical politics in the United States, and the related demise in some intellectual circles of a radical and reforming spirit.
Viewed superficially, the movement toward social equality has deep roots in the ideological and institutional past. The egalitarian theme, so viewed, permeates Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, the abolition of slavery, the rise of trade unionism, and modern reformist politics. The imperative claim that “all men are created equal” has seemingly provided premise and goal for efforts to extend the suffrage, emancipate the Negro, develop a system of mass education, and promote equal economic opportunity. The American Creed, according to Gunnar Myrdal, not merely espouses equality, but has lodged it firmly in the national conscience to such an extent, for example, that discriminatory treatment of Negroes gives rise to profound guilt feelings (which are assuaged by further ill-treatment). Interpreted in this fashion, the movement toward social equality would appear to be unambiguous, uninhibited, almost deterministic.
The ambiguities and inhibitions exist, however, and they have become more pronounced in the last twenty years. They derive from the other themes which make up the ideological and institutional context: individualism and competition, the profit motive, and the importance in America of material success. Translated into personal aspiration, these themes have generated much less a desire for equality than a desire for economic gain, advancement, and higher social status and position. From the earliest days of the Republic, the business ethic has been the dominant ethic. The typical American, therefore, has never regarded the possession of wealth as inherently immoral, and even the poorest of Americans have never sought to reduce the wealthy to their own economic and social position. Depressions, financial panics, recessions, and the prevalence of poverty amidst plenty, have never undermined the faith in America as the land of individual opportunity.