This year has seen disturbing flare-ups around issues of race, immigration, and white nativism generally.


Source: Chet Strange/Getty Images News

They ranged from clumsy White House tweets about Jewish “disloyalty” to angry controversies around two Muslim congresswomen, more episodes of police shootings of blacks, all the way to mass murders such as the slaughter of Latinos in an El Paso Walmart (and last year of synagogue-goers in Pittsburgh).

Correspondingly, Americans’ anxieties about race have spiked in recent years. In 2016, 38 percent of respondents told the Pew survey that they thought race relations have worsened; in 2019, 53 percent did.[1] Respondents to the Gallup Poll felt the same surge of concern. The following graph shows the percentage who said that they worried a “great deal” about race relations.[2]


Does the rising tide of worry mean that the nation is descending into a maelstrom of racial conflict? More likely, we are seeing the kind of fearful and angry reaction that major social change often brings.

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[Note to readers: I started this blog not for political comments but for reporting social science, especially American social history. But I will scratch the itch… and then return to “regular programming.”]

Premise: Removing Trump is America’s number one priority, because his re-election would make us fall further behind in addressing priorities number two through n–slowing climate change, tamping down war, moderating inequality, repairing the infrastructure, learning to live with growing diversity, and more.

Strategies: They largely boil down to hard-nosed pragmatics: We on the left should not shoot ourselves in the foot.

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Efforts to increase equal opportunity in America have been frustrated for many years. Racial gaps in upward mobility persist; children of low-income families fall further behind children of affluent families. Why hasn’t progress been made since the social programs of the 1960s and ‘70s and the many school reform movements in the last decades?

Three scholars–Stanford sociologist David Grusky, Harvard political scientist Peter Hall, and Stanford psychologist Hazel Markus–have just offered a useful way to understand what has thwarted expanded equal opportunity for American youth. In the latest issue of Daedalus, they describe the rise, expansion, and operation of what they call “opportunity markets.” The idea, simply put, is that increasingly the very opportunities for children to succeed are up for sale and, of course, wealthy parents can and do buy more opportunities than less affluent parents can.

I’ll start the explanation–although the authors do not start this way–with a first axiom: parental love.

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It frustrates many parents. The kid is off in a corner, head down, hunched over, totally absorbed in what he or she is staring at, oblivious to anyone who may be speaking, totally uninterested in going out to play with other children or even to get some fresh air, and likely to stay withdrawn that way for hours. Then there are the nights the kid spends doing the same secretly under the bed covers (as if you didn’t know), escaping into some other reality.

The addiction is, of course, to books.epic

Many of us remember being told to get our noses out of the books, to go outside and play, to turn the light off at night, and to hand over contraband reading.

That reading should be so absorbing and satisfying is paradoxical given how totally unnatural it is. Its artificiality is relevant to the long and wide debate over “human nature.” The specter of “Natural Man” [sic] has strode powerfully through American intellectual and public thought since at least the mid-19th century when Darwinism challenged the biblical model of Man as Adam. The ape-who-stood-up image remains perhaps stronger today than ever. It is not just the popularity of fads like the Pleistocene diet and herbal remedies, but more powerfully the idea that we can best understand 21st-century human beings by looking back to the moment when homo sapiens emerged from the forests. It is their Pleistocene brains that we are born with and with which we must confront modern times.

But those early humans did not read. And we do.

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Baseball fanatics like me love to wallow in cliches such as “baseball is life.” “Baseball is a lot like life,” said Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell. “It’s a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.” Yes, indeed.

Regularly enough, however, a desiccated cliche like “baseball is America” comes alive. Such is the comment of San Francisco sportswriter Henry Schulman upon the announcements that Bryce Harper will get a guaranteed $330 million over 13 years from the Phillies and Mike Trout a guaranteed $430 million over 12 years from the Angels. (Trout will receive annually about 25 times more in real dollars than Babe Ruth ever did. He will make about 800 times as much per year as the median American worker today makes–and he will have a lot more fun making it, too.) “So, if I understand Baseball economics now,” Schulman tweeted, “a few guys at the top earn more than they can spend in 100 lifetimes, a lot of players who used to be paid decently now get scraps, and the group in the middle is shrinking quickly. No, wait, that’s America!” (@hankschulman 3/20/19).

Indeed, the pay disparities developing in major league baseball roughly parallel those that have developed in the general economy. (Mind you, no one need weep for the lowest-paid major leaguers; their minimum wage is about a half-million dollars a year. The real proletarians are average minor leaguers; they effectively earn less than the national minimum wage under difficult working conditions.) Another commonality between baseball and American economics is how massive data-crunching has helped produce growing inequality.

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Now that the decades of rapidly rising economic inequality have become evident to all, the center of public debate has shifted toward the question of what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend.

This development is most dramatically displayed in the eagerness with which newly-energized progressives have proposed ideas such as a 70 percent marginal top tax rate, a two-to-three percent annual tax on wealth, and a beefed-up estate tax. Polls show that most Americans, even many rank-and-file Republicans, dislike growing inequality and endorse, at least in the abstract, taxing the rich more. However, when it gets down to concrete action, Americans–with our insistence on “deservingness” and “just desserts”–typically back off from redistribution. We instead prefer expanding opportunities for people to get ahead, especially by broadening access to education.

Unfortunately, while increasing access would make for a more equal inequality–I’ll explain what I mean by that in a bit–it would do little to compress the ever-yawning income and wealth gaps. That is because the core problem is not making the race to the top fairer, although that is a worthy goal, but is making the results of the race to the top fairer. There, the options are even tougher.

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One of the most viewed posts on this blog is a 2010 essay titled “A Christian America?: What History Shows.” It addresses the question of whether this nation was born Christian. What history shows is that most Americans at the time of the Revolution were “unchurched” and not much theologically Christian (more superstitious than religious). The evangelical movements of the 19th century Christianized America.

But there is another way to pose the question, “A Christian America?” How Christian are Americans today compared to people in peer nations–in other western, affluent, nominally Christian countries? In one sense, we are the most Christian people, but in another sense, the least. It’s about talking the talk and walking the walk.

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In October, the New York Times ran a story comparing how older large corporations–the recently bankrupted Sears, in particular–were more generous to their lower-rung employees than are the newer ones–Amazon, in particular. Sears (the Amazon of its day) had offered more in wages, benefits, and stock options. The Times story failed to point out the important, and invisible to most Americans, sea change in business that fostered such differences: the triumph of “shareholder value.”

Shareholder value is the doctrine that officials of a publicly-held corporation must focus on maximizing the value of its shares rather than act in the interests of workers, suppliers, customers, the local community, society at large, the environment, themselves as managers, or the corporation itself. The ascendancy of this guiding principle since about 1970s has boosted inequality by making investors and management much wealthier and by weakening workers and localities. Dealing with this idea is one of the challenges facing those who seek to reverse growing inequality.

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For several years now, this blog has tracked growing political partisanship in the U.S., the estrangement between grassroots Republicans and Democrats that echoes some of nineteenth-century inter-party vitriol, although does not reenact some of nineteenth-century bloodshed (yet). The division is increasingly about culture and identity rather than about policy. Differences on issues such as health, immigration, and entitlements are not fundamental–witness red states voting for Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage. Instead, more and more voters are basing their policy preferences (and a lot more) on their parties. Furthermore, party lines increasingly match regional, state, and community borders, which intensifies the political consequences.

This polarization had been under way for a few decades among political elites but not among the wider public until more recently. Trump’s victory depended critically on that polarization; his campaign and presidency, in turn, widened it. Both in 2016 and 2018 Trump spurned the “big-tent” outreach strategy of the GOP elites and instead revved up the base over cultural topics.

One result of this year’s midterms is, as many commentators have noted (e.g., here), yet further widening of the cleavage. The very size of the midterm turnout is one sign: Massive mobilization against Trump seemed to spur massive mobilization for Trump. In the end, a handful of culturally red states purged themselves of anomalous Democratic senators as many culturally blue congressional districts purged themselves of anomalous Republican representatives–often by replacing them with the sorts of victors who provoke the Trump base: career women, minorities, LGBT, and even Muslims.

Where is this bitter polarization heading?

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Americans have in the last few generations increasingly sought “authenticity”–authenticity in things such as food and music, but most especially authenticity in others and in themselves. Twentieth-century philosophers and scholars of popular culture have noticed this growing pursuit of the authentic. We can even put numbers on it. Phrases like true me, real self, and authentic self appeared much more often in American prose at the end of the twentieth century than they did a century earlier. In contrast, the phrases better me and better self became scarcer–a comparison to which I will return.[1]

The O.E.D. presents many definitions of authentic, but states that its “usual sense” these days is “genuine,” and particularly, with respect to people, “truly reflect[ing] one’s inner feelings; not affected, unfeigned,” or more generally, “the condition of being true to oneself.” This definition assumes that there actually is a stable, core, distinctive “oneself” to which one could be true.

Such an assumption is novel and strange in human history (even if mouthed c. 1600 by the buffoonish Polonius in Hamlet, which at that time likely meant “look out for number one” rather than “find your true self.” Globally, people have typically understood most individuals to be parts of the social organism rather than as unique and autonomous agents. (See this earlier post.)

Nonetheless, Americans, long heavily engaged in self-perfection, have been lately searching more and more for this elusive true self–a pursuit that has affected our politics up to and including the 45th president.

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