Opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation is to restore that promise.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama made an argument for equality of opportunity that should resonate with radicals. Walter Benjamin fans will be pleased to see the “myth of promised redemption” (Illuminations 1968, 117) in this one small passage replace progressivism in Obama’s narrative:
- America promised equality of opportunity to past generations.
- Equal opportunity does not exist in America.
- America has betrayed its promise to past generations.
It’s a valid argument, but Republicans will say unsound. Equality of opportunity is plagued by vagueness. Opportunity does exist for Americans and their bootstraps. Then there is the more interesting problem of “America”. What claims do the past have upon us? Are we bound to honor emancipatory promises made to our ancestors? Here our questions pierce the heart of Benjamin’s convictions.
Addressing inequality does seem to be the “defining project” of both the Left and Right heading into 2016. On the Right, it is the second anniversary of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, helpfully reviewed here by Brad Wilcox. The book had the startling effect of making many on the Right take inequality seriously: witness Kevin Williamson coin the term new segregation over at National Review. (If an 85-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. walked amongst us, the term “new segregation” might be the loadstone to see if the project of multiracial democratic socialism sticks to King.)
By “take inequality seriously” I mean that Republicans make the case that traditional moral institutions like marriage are a solution for inequality. Douthat’s column last Sunday on this topic caused a flurry of debate over Coming Apart and the Right’s marriage-promotion agenda. Phantom cure (Yglesias). Obnoxious cargo cult (Waldman). Douthat fires back that social liberalism is class warfare.
Pressing concerns over inequality bring the Left and the Right to vie for an electorate they project to become increasingly populist, a global phenomenon of the recent long recession. Is there anxiety in the suburbs? Have Americans decoded the combinations to power: 06870, 10021, 22066, 94301? Will the age of reverse-Leninism (All power to the Superzips!) melt away?