Without Social Mobility, Our Society Doesn’t Work

June 3, 2014

As long as there is opportunity for all who are willing to play by the rules, political stability will be preserved, argues Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich in his new blog.

Structural changes are making our form of capitalism less democratic. Not surprisingly, these changes are also creating a new wave of populism. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama labeled inequality of opportunities and declining social mobility as America’s “defining challenge of our times”, and proclaimed that “we must reverse these trends.”

In advance of his speech observers wondered whether he would emphasize the left/liberal remedy of seeking redistribution of incomes or the more moderate/conservative remedy of seeking to improve equality of opportunity.

He unequivocally chose the latter. I think he made the right choice.

Americans are big fans of economic success. Unlike many Europeans, we are remarkably free of envy about some of us making zillions of dollars. But the legitimacy of their doing so comes with an all-important qualification: the insistence that all of us should be free to take advantage of our system of open-ended opportunity to improve our lot in life.

Reversing the trend of stagnating opportunities for the majority of Americans is a political as well as an economic must.

In other words, our system of capitalism is warmly endorsed and legitimized as long as—and only as long as—it is open to all who are willing to play by the rules. This is an essential feature of our nation’s unwritten social contract.

As long as this element of the contract is observed, we will preserve our political stability, whatever other problems we may confront.

But my fifty-plus years of experience in interpreting public opinion tells me that if equality of opportunity continues to erode, extremist political movements will inevitably arise, making our present polarization far worse than it is today and ripping to shreds our social contract.

Reversing the trend of stagnating opportunities for the majority of Americans is a political as well as an economic must.

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.


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