Conservatives and Liberals Are Both Concerned by the Collapse of Social Mobility

The American Dream Has Moved Abroad

I noted in 2010 that the American Dream has moved abroad … since the likelihood of a rags-to-riches success story has become higher in many other parts of the world.

MSNBC’s Red Tape blog noted yesterday:

Upward mobility … once upon a time was a defining characteristic of the American way of life.


We can all agree that America isn’t America without the Frontier spirit, the social contract that if you work hard, there’s a brighter tomorrow. That spirit is in serious danger… right now.

The New York Times confirmed this collapse in American mobility on Wednesday:

Many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe.


At least five large studies in recent years have found the United States to be less mobile than comparable nations.


“Family background plays more of a role in the U.S. than in most comparable countries,” Professor Corak said in an interview.

Conservatives and Liberals Are Both Concerned by the Collapse of Mobility

Conservatives tend to be more tolerant of inequality than liberals (although conservatives are also offended when levels of inequality become too great; and see this).

But as the New York Times notes, conservatives are as disturbed as liberals by the collapse of social mobility in modern America:

Rick Santorum … warned this fall that movement “up into the middle income is actually greater, the mobility in Europe, than it is in America.” National Review, a conservative thought leader, wrotethat “most Western European and English-speaking nations have higher rates of mobility.” Even Representative Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who argues that overall mobility remains high, recently wrote that “mobility from the very bottom up” is “where the United States lags behind.”


“It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” said Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”


By emphasizing the influence of family background, the studies not only challenge American identity but speak to the debate about inequality. While liberals often complain that the United States has unusually large income gaps, many conservatives have argued that the system is fair because mobility is especially high, too: everyone can climb the ladder. Now the evidence suggests that America is not only less equal, but also less mobile.


John Bridgeland, a former aide to President George W. Bush who helped start Opportunity Nation, an effort to seek policy solutions, said he was “shocked” by the international comparisons. “Republicans will not feel compelled to talk about income inequality,” Mr. Bridgeland said. “But they will feel a need to talk about a lack of mobility — a lack of access to the American Dream.”

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  • Ford Prefect

    Unfortunately, this premise is simply untrue. Conservatives, in principle, are all about maintaining and enhancing inequality. This is why three decades of “conservative” governance has brought us to this point. It’s a feature, not a bug, for conservatives generally. Indeed, conservative antipathy towards social mobility has been existed for the entire history of this nation.

    Republicans are pandering on this issue, because they know common people are lamenting the destruction of the “American Dream.” This is because common people are not typically as right-wing as their ruling elites are.

    How do the GOP candidates intend to increase social mobility? By going even farther down the road we’ve been on these last thirty years: Redistribute wealth upwards, deregulation and completing the destruction of our democratic institutions. This is just more of the same.

    But that doesn’t mean they can’t frame it in terms reconstituting the “American Dream.” That’s what they’ve been doing all along. It’s also been a bald-faced lie all this time. But let’s face it: Lying works rather well in this country. Even when everything is being flushed down the loo by our ruling elites. Indeed, the Democratic Leadership has fully embraced the GOP frame on all this, except for the fact they are so apologetic about it. Crocodile tears.

    The only difference between the two party leaderships at this point is the speed with which they wish to destroy the republic and its constitution. They are both now “conservative” parties that stand solely for Authority, Hierarchy and Privilege. Oh, and redistributing every little bit of wealth upwards into the hands of ever fewer people.

    At no time in history have such priorities led to increased equality (or decreased inequality, if that sounds more reasonable), which is required for social mobility. So the candidates can say whatever they want. But no one should believe a single word of it.

    Throughout American history, conservatives have always been on the wrong side of this issue. They preferred the Crown to the American Revolution. They opposed giving the right to vote to people who weren’t landed gentry. They opposed abolition of slavery. They opposed women’s suffrage. They opposed the New Deal and the GI Bill. They opposed the right to organize. They opposed (and still do) public education. They opposed going to war against European fascism. They opposed the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. In short, they have always opposed social and economic progress, which is a fundamental part of the “American Dream,” since without that progress, there can be no social mobility.

    Conservative politicians pander to this dream, because they know Americans aren’t as conservative as they are, to a large extent. The AD was always a progressive idea and people latched onto it for a lot of reasons. But any conservative pandering on that idea is just a lie intended to hoodwink people into voting against their own rational self-interests.

    So I would suggest is that where common ground really exists is within the polity and not among leadership. Moderate conservatives are perfectly capable of crossing the ideological line for ideas they believe are in their best, long-term interests–that is what it means to be a “moderate,” after all. This is why issue-based polls, well done, show Americans to be not really as conservative as the mainstream propaganda organs like to portray them. So in this narrow sense, your headline makes some sense.

    But in terms of political leadership of a truly conservative nature, the headline doesn’t fit at all. None of them actually think the AD is an even remotely attractive idea. Nor, I will add, do the current crop of Democratic Party leaders, who like their GOP frenemies, are merely acting in their own class-interests. All this in an election cycle in which the AD is the centerpiece of every campaign out there.

    The persistent decline of social mobility in this country has been a decades long, policy-driven effort. As such, the attempts at pandering on this issue are transparently false. If Americans really care about social mobility, then they’d better start putting people in office who will actually make that happen, instead of buying into completely phony campaign BS, which essentially holds social mobility hostage to an ideology that will never produce those results and was never intended to.

  • Karl Von der Spaltz

    “The American Dream Has Moved Abroad”…wondering how long it will take for ordinary Americans to stop thinking that they are some sort of a unique breed and reject egregious bullshit as the one posted by the author(s) of this article.

  • It is not just economics that will be affected by this. The very concept of family will be altered by the “new economy.” Most of the jobs lost in the last few years have been male-dominated jobs. Many of these jobs paid well even though they required only a minimum of education — just a good work ethic and the smarts to do a good job. At the same time these jobs have been outsourced, we have allowed an open border policy so when a man loses his job at a factory he does not have the option to take a lower paying manual labor job because that niche has been filled by people from south of the border. In fact, chances are he needs to know Spanish to even get many jobs now. So what will this do to the family? Maybe this:

    Pt 1:

    Pt 2:

  • Tatiana Covington

    Ever heard of Karl Friedrich Gauss? He discovered the famous bell curve. People can’t be equalized!