The following is the introduction to American Ideas of Equality: A Social History, 1750-2020 (Cambria Press, 2021). The book is available from the publisher in inexpensive e-book and hardcover at http://www.cambriapress.com/cambriapress.cfm?template=5&bid=792
In my university classes on social stratification, I frequently ask students whether they see “equality” as a desirable goal for a society. Inevitably, they say that they do and they will characterize movement toward greater equality in American society as progressive and as the way of social justice. So, I ask them, do you think that we should all receive the same incomes or live in uniform houses? Very few students agree to that kind of equality, but they often do say that smaller gaps in material well-being than we have today would be desirable, without being able to specify just how small or great those gaps should be. Pressed, they will generally explain that the kind of equality they really favor is a competitive inequality. Everyone should have the same chance to obtain unequal rewards. But wouldn’t competition for jobs or offices make the desired positions more unequal, I ask, since increasing demand raises market value? And wouldn’t the unequal results tend to make future competition unequal, since more and less successful competitors, or their children, would not be starting from the same places?
Sometimes the students will tell me that what they mean by equality is really political equality or equality under the law. But f political equality means that every individual has exactly the same voice in governance as every other individual, then the attainment of this state is unlikely in most real world situations if it is ever possible at all. Even in a small community that practices direct democracy some people will be more engaged, more vociferous, or more persuasive than others, so that some will have greater influence. Coalitions and selective cooperation among some sets of people will result in differences in power to direct decision-making.
Even in that small community, wealth, as well as persuasive ability, weighs heavily on decision-making. Those with greater resources have more influence. In a large and complex society, access to means of communication or ownership of those means greatly magnifies the influence, so that formal political equality is not only consistent with inequality of power, but the former can contribute to the latter.
Equality under the law faces problems of both economic and political inequality. As Anatole France wrote, “La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain” [“the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread].[i]
A few students will tell me that for them equality means a true equality of condition, with all individuals in the same situations. If this means that all have the same shares in goods and resources, though, then some power must control distribution, so that attempts to achieve and maintain economic egalitarianism often imply concentration of political control. In Weberian terms, control over distribution shifts inequality from Class to Party.
Other students will say that they use the term “equality” to mean the equal representation of members of racial, ethnic, or gender categories in desired positions or equality of outcomes among those categories. This is a reasonable response, given the inequities of our history. Again, though, this is a type of unequal equality, since it would make variations in power or life chances occurrences within these categories, instead of among them. The pursuit of what I call “categorical equalization” in this book also entails the intensified use of political control.
It is not my intent to argue for or against any of these versions of equality in this book. Nor do I propose to make a case for any particular brand of market or socialist economy. Instead, my goal is to explore the ways in which the fundamental American commitment to something called equality have evolved and shifted over the course of the nation’s history. Although we often use this term without reflection as if we know exactly what it means, it refers to a protean concept that has taken different forms and received varying emphases in different periods. The modern notion of equality among human beings is ambiguous and involves self-contradictions and paradoxes. Social, economic, and political realities have frequently been inconsistent with expressed ideals of equality, and reconciling ideals with realities has entailed selective awareness.
In the following pages, I argue that the essential but troublesome American concept of equality has been a product of interrelated historical forces. One of these is cultural transmission. No society creates its stock of ideas entirely anew, and the past remains always with us, although the values and images we receive from the past require modification to fit changing circumstances. Another force is the economic and political setting of a given period. Equality of opportunity, for example, depends on the availability of opportunities. Political equality depends on the structure of government. Yet a third force is communication. Ideas clearly exist in communication, so media shape ideas.
The American nation began with debates over the nature of social and economic equality and over the implications of equality for the establishment of government. The break with European domination involved an ideological break with hierarchies of inherited status, with aristocracy. Early American views of equality, then, were founded on the independence of individuals from hierarchy. But this very independence, some worried, might bring about a new inequality, in the form of a “natural aristocracy.” This was an early form of the contradiction between equality of condition and equality of opportunity. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an ideology of individual, self-reliant upward mobility combined with the compartmentalization of excluded groups to enable Americans to reconcile the contradictory parts of the national ideal of equality.
The ideology of the “self-made man,” communicated through the ubiquitous medium of newspapers, came under pressure from a changing economic environment and evolved over the decades, but continued to be a critical part of our system of beliefs. In the late nineteenth century an expanding industrial economy, with heavy immigration to fill the bottom ranks encouraged Americans to see their society as providing perpetual opportunity for upward mobility. African Americans, though, who provided much of the unskilled labor, particularly in agriculture, continued to be compartmentalized. A distinction between gender-based public and domestic spheres also continued to compartmentalize women.
In the late twentieth century, two developments, along with the rise of mass visual media, began to bring the contradictions in our commitment to equality to the surface. First, the rise of the affluent society after World War II created the expectation that upward mobility should not simply be an opportunity for all individuals, but a reality for all members of society. Second, the recognition that previously compartmentalized groups had been excluded stimulated demands for promoting and subsidizing the upward mobility of the least advantaged.
In the twenty-first century, expanding demands for categorical equality came increasingly into conflict with inherited and more individualistic notions. The technology-finance economy caused economic opportunities to contract even as expectations that universal upward mobility should be the norm continued. New electronic media gave rise to a boutique communication economy catering to specialized identities, perceptions, and resentments. Technological change both fostered economic concentration and stimulated the flourishing of identity groups competing over narrowing resources in an era of fragmentation and polarization.
Readers may note, especially in the later chapters of the book that treat more recent historical developments, that I offer few solutions to problems of inequality. This is intentional. My goal is to provide a descriptive and interpretive history of concepts of equality for the sake of understanding, not to engage in prescribing remedies for social problems. Nevertheless, I do include some very brief thoughts at the end about the importance of compromise in a diverse society with differing and frequently conflicting views on the meaning of one of its foundational principles.
Readers should also keep in mind that this book is an effort to identify how ideas of inequality have evolved over the course of American history. As I have observed in the opening paragraphs, inequality is a complicated notion. My concern is not with analyzing every kind of inequality or equality, but at exploring which kinds have received public attention over the course of our history and why.
Chapter 1 examines equality as a foundational ideal of the early American republic. Although there were wide regional variations in stratification at the time of the American Revolution, the rural nature of early North America and the availability of land for settlement and speculation encouraged the desire for independence from England and the idea that equality was a matter of individual independence from Old World hierarchy. The agrarian basis of this equality of independence made advocates of urban, commercial interests suspect in the eyes of Jeffersonian egalitarians. The reaction against hierarchy also raised an early version of debate over the implications of individual achievement. Might the old aristocracy of birth be replaced by a “natural aristocracy” of ability, effort, and luck that would re-establish hierarchy? The ideal of an equality of independence was also deeply inconsistent with the institution of slavery, an inconsistency generally managed by compartmentalizing an entire racial category.
Chapter 2 describes how the independent yeoman of the early years of the American republic became the “self-made man” in the years before the Civil War. The expanding boundaries of the nation, increasing opportunities for farm ownership and for success in manufacturing enterprises. The chapter looks at equality and mobility in the expanding nation through the eyes of two foreign observers, Alexis de Tocqueville and Fanny Trollope. It explores the centrality of the image of the self-made man in the politics of an era characterized by widening male suffrage and by popular communication by newspapers, which became a primary way of expressing and popularizing equality as the opportunity for individual self-creation. The chapter ends with sections on two major contradictions of the belief in the self-made individual: slaves and women.
Chapter 3 follows the transformation of the concept of the self-made man during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time that saw the growth of major corporations, rapid urbanization, the growth of formal organizations such as public schools, and massive immigration. It explores the movement known as “Progressivism” as a response to political, economic, and social centralization and bureaucratization. In the increasingly bureaucratic setting of the time, equality began to take on the implication of the equality of citizens before a central, organizing state. The popularity of success literature reflected the view that self-made men were those who could draw upon their own talents and energies to rise in a corporate bureaucratic environment. This environment also placed an increased emphasis on formal education as a way of fitting individuals into a corporate environment and as a way of enabling the competition for success. The great wave of immigration that accompanied the expanding economy both fostered the ideal of America as the land of opportunity and it produced a system of ethnic stratification. While racial segregation maintained African Americans in many ways at the bottom of the stratification system, it also provided, in ideals at least, a parallel path to self-made success, as reflected in the popular autobiography of Booker T. Washington. Although women were still generally compartmentalized in a separate domestic sphere, the concept of the abstract citizen, equal in formal organizations began to challenge gender segregation.
In Chapter 4, I look at the further development of the bureaucratic society during the time of the New Deal. I argue that one of the chief characteristics of the bureaucratic society was the unequal equality of individuals in hierarchical organizations, which laid the foundation for what would later become known as “meritocracy.” The enhanced role of government in this bureaucratic society also encouraged the development of a concept of social citizenship, which included enhanced federal responsibilities for the welfare of citizens. The equality of citizens lay in their claims on the benefits and resources provided by government. Economic distribution, as measured by shares of income, became more equal during this period, setting expectations for greater equality of condition that would be promoted by governmental intervention and regulation, with the equality of citizens seen in terms of consumption. The emergence of mass media, in the form of radio, helped to absorb individuals into the social citizenship of the bureaucratic society. Political attempts to spread benefits and guarantees of participation and material security across broad swathes of a national population stimulated thinking of equality in categorical terms, largely defined by social classes. Formal education also responded to the corporate setting, as it took on more of a role of the political shaping social citizens. Despite the beginning of thinking about equality in terms of social categories, political pressures continued the bracketing out of African American citizens. The chapter ends with looking at the emergence of contested ideas of equality during the New Deal period.
Chapter 5 describes these contested ideas as largely slipping into the background during the boom post-World War II years, mainly the late 1940s and 1950s. Following the war, the country enjoyed rapidly increasing levels of production and consumption, along with a relative equalization of incomes known as “the Great Compression.” A wider distribution of income was accompanied by structural upward mobility, an increase in desirable, well-paid, prestigious occupations requiring high levels of education. American society began to look like a race that everyone had the opportunity to win, and, following a pattern established by the New Deal, government played an active role in subsidizing these opportunities through support for mortgages, education, and other sources of upward mobility. In higher education, in particular, one of the consequences was the appearance of a new “natural aristocracy,” in the form of what was now called a “meritocracy.” At the time, though, the questions that an elite of achievement might pose about social and economic equality, raised in the early republic, were obscured by the increasing structural mobility, making it look like there was “room at the top” for everyone. An undercurrent of criticism of what appeared to be a homogenizing, conformist culture did appear, though. Along with this critical undercurrent, the very expectation that success and material well-being should be universally available provoked objections from other social critics, who pointed out that some were still excluded. Faith in the capacity of policy led these critics to argue for more active political intervention, to bring all into the realm of abundance and opportunity. Television contributed high consumer expectations and to national centralization. The period saw the ideal of categorical equality, of equality applied to groups as opposed to individuals, begin to challenge traditional individual-level concepts. Legal challenges to racial discrimination in schooling were initially based on meritocratic ideals of individual opportunity, but these would also lead to efforts at categorical equalization.
Chapter 6 follows by tracing efforts at group equalization during the 1960s and early 1970s. The era of the Civil Rights movement placed a new focus on group equalization, drawing attention to previously suppressed contradictions in traditional American concepts of equality. This was the consequence of four main developments. First, the material abundance of the postwar years had encouraged thinking of the nation’s primary challenge as one of extending high standards of living throughout the society. Second, mass communication promoted consumer expectations across all parts of the society. Third, mass communication also provided a national theater for members of groups excluded from benefits and opportunities. Fourth, the expansion of governmental social intervention encouraged thinking about improving standards of living in general and equalizing life chances across categories of people as problems that could be solved by means of public policy. The chapter gives particular attention to how the model for thinking about equality developed by the Civil Rights movement expanded to categories beyond race. It considers how policies of categorical equalization in employment and education both incorporated earlier individual-level concepts of equality and conflicted with those concepts.
The final chapter brings the history up to the present time. In a discussion of the economic setting, the chapter points out that by the late 1970s the trend of general income equalization and structural upward mobility were over, even as Americans continued to expect that life chances and opportunities should improve. The development of an economy dominated by advanced technology and finance was one of the most important characteristics of this setting. Centralized mass communication gave way to the new social media that were part of the technology-finance economy. The new social media were both centralizing and decentralizing. In terms of ownership, knowledge-intensive and capital-intensive promoted an oligopoly. At the same time, though, they produced a boutique economy of communication, encouraging the splitting of the society into interest and identity groups. This fragmentation contributed to the growth of a form of populism in American politics. At the same time, the narrowing of opportunities heightened the contradictions involved in trying to subsidize upward mobility for group equalization. This narrowing of opportunities during a time that government policies attempted to increase opportunities for excluded groups combined with competing forms of identity politics to reinforce partisan political polarization, as shown in voting patterns. Competing ideas about the nature of equality and the role of government in equalization encouraged disenchantment with the American political system, as well as polarization. The chapter concludes by considering how historically developed, conflicting ideas about equality had come to reflect a polarized and fragmented society.
[i] Anatole France, Le Lys rouge (Paris: Caimann-Lévy, 1894) 118