Today, the majority of Americans, including those accustomed to the promise of the middle class, are caught between diminishing economic opportunity and increasing political inequality.
Most Americans do not particularly resent wealth. In fact, they respect those who make it big, especially if they do so through ingenuity and hard work, and hope to do the same themselves.
But if they feel that their own economic opportunities are diminishing rather than expanding, people begin to feel mounting frustration as they question society’s basic fairness.
If more and more of life’s essentials—housing, college, health care—skyrocket in price well beyond what people can reasonably afford, people begin to feel desperate.
And if they believe that the wealthy have undue political influence, so that the average person’s recourse in both the economic and political spheres has closed down, then people begin to feel enraged.
This brings us to the present political moment.
For those born poor and systematically undermined by policy and prejudice, the above scenarios have always been the reality. What’s different today, as many have noted, is that the majority of Americans, including those accustomed to the promise of the middle class, are caught between diminishing economic opportunity and increasing political inequality.
We could argue about the causes interminably, because the problem is so overdetermined: technology, globalization, policy, politics and culture have all been faulted to some degree.
What’s clear is that most Americans feel their current well-being and future prospects slipping further out of reach even as they feel increasingly powerless to do anything about it. The result is a simmering discontent that could explode in unpredictable and dangerous ways unless a more hopeful path forward presents itself.
There is, though, a sliver of hope amidst our difficulties. When the majority finds itself marginalized, old assumptions are called into question. Possibilities emerge to build a new working consensus on how the American democratic experiment should move forward. Will we fragment under the pressure? Will we unite based on scapegoats and magically-easy answers? Or will we figure things out together through democratic dialogue and compromise?
If we want a more, rather than less, democratic America to emerge from our impasse, we will have to find ways to reinvent economic opportunity and political efficacy. Toward that end, Public Agenda is conducting research into how the American people are looking at these tasks and the kinds of remedies they would be most willing to support once they’ve had a chance to deliberate with their neighbors.
We look forward to sharing what we learn with our readers and stimulating fresh thinking about how we can forge a path forward that reinvents economic and political opportunity in our time.