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 es...
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