More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century
In the millennium State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton offered an optimistic and triumphant vision of the world he expected to see in the twenty-first century, a world in which the upward march of the stock market would provide wealth and comfort for all of American society and in which the proliferation of computers and the Internet would create a new sector of jobs that would eliminate the business cycle. A mere four years after the speech was delivered, it is already apparent that the world President Clinton predicted has not come to be, and that the coming decades in the United States will be characterized by the growing divide between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots. In a discussion of his new book, More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century, sponsored by the Division of United States Studies and the Project on America and the Global Economy, Godfrey Hodgson talked about the changes in American society that he has seen in his decades of observing American life and about where he believes the United States is headed in the years ahead.
Hodgson, the author of numerous books about the United States, traveled through 48 of the 50 states in his decades-long career as a journalist. He believes four phenomena characterize the tensions present in American society. The first is the shift to the suburbs as the "characteristic American habitat" and the preference for the private over the public implicit in that shift. Second is the increase in corporate, and by extension purely financially motivated, management. The marked increase in the influence of the media, specifically advertising, news, entertainment, and the growing fusion among the three is the third phenomenon. Finally, said Hodgson, the most marked of the phenomena is the huge increase in financial inequality and its social implications, as the United States rapidly becomes a stratified, class-based society. This is quite different from the early U.S., when Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the overwhelming equality to be found in American society. Stratification, Hodgson told the audience, is increasing in terms of wages, income, and wealth, and with those changes come differential opportunities for educational attainment, professional opportunities, and social mobility. Social classes are invisible to each other as never before. Residential segregation by class exists throughout the country. While equality of educational opportunity was once the glory of the United States, a national elite clustered in the country's metropolitan areas no longer sends it children to public schools or to any but a few elite universities, thereby increasing the distance between classes. Hodgson noted that the United States is now the most unequal industrialized nation in the world.The chasms between classes are increasing, he said, and once those gaps widen, they can be virtually impossible to shrink.
As to the question of why opposition to this stratification is so comparatively weak, Hodgson pointed to the media, suggesting that Americans have been deluded into believing their lives to be more comfortable than they are. He also suggested that the hegemony of the business class that has characterized American social history ebbs and flows, as there are cyclical revolts of the "masses" against the "establishment." The Progressive era constituted one such movement, as did the New Deal and the rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Saying that the country may not yet have experienced another such moment only because of the events of and reaction to 9/11, Hodgson hypothesized that the next major societal upheaval may well come over the clash between the claims of big business and a societal concern for environmental responsibility.
Drafted by Ann Chernicoff
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129
Kent Hughes, Director, Project on America and the Global Economy (202) 691-4136