Home On the Agenda The Need for Strong Public Engagement

The Need for Strong Public Engagement

August 26, 2014

Social immobility is a complex political problem. To solve it, the public must get directly and fully engaged. But with the public so divided, is this possible?

Economic inequality and blocked social mobility are so closely linked they are often confused with one another. But they are two quite different problems.

Economic inequality refers to the widening gaps in income and wealth between the low-middle and high income strata of our society. Social mobility refers to the ease (or difficulty) of moving up the income escalator through one’s own efforts.

Franco Folini, Flickr

Advocates tend to offer one-sided strategies to address the two problems. Those focused on social mobility tend to emphasize redistribution strategies. But advocates of redistribution do not always realize that reducing income inequality may not improve social mobility. Conversely, strategies for easing social mobility may leave income inequality barely touched.

There are also large differences in public support for the two strategies. Strategies for improving social mobility enjoy much broader public support than redistribution strategies.

In our era of specialization, it is important to decide whether the strategy of choice for addressing both problems is economic or political. I agree with the many economists like Nobel winner Joseph Stiglitz who strongly insists that they require political rather than economic remedies.

Stiglitz characterizes economic inequality and social immobility as complex political problems that politicians can’t solve through conventional legislation and regulation. He believes that the public at large has to get directly and fully engaged. The American public has to confront and wrestle with the problem, but, as he states, “they can do so only if they understand the depths and dimensions of the challenge.” This is an eloquent phrase, but it is difficult to unpack its concrete, specific meaning.

Economic inequality and social immobility are complex political problems that politicians can’t solve through conventional legislation and regulation.

I agree with Stiglitz that without strong public engagement and support, conventional political tactics will prove insufficient. But I’m not sure how we go about mobilizing the public to confront the issue in its full “depth and dimensions.”

At present, the American public is so divided and disengaged that Stiglitz’s advice seems a counsel of despair. We live in an era of all-pervasive public mistrust and disengagement (aside from relatively small numbers of activists at the ideological extremes). At present, our public discourse is not up to the demand for deep engagement and thoughtful deliberation. And it is not likely to be for years to come.

On the other hand, if one takes a moderately long-term point of view, there are reasonable grounds for optimism. If we can get beyond the current disengaged mood there are ways of encouraging strong public engagement, and there are powerful incentives for doing so.

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.