Leslie McCall, “How Americans Think Politically about Economic Inequality”. Commentary by ARC Student Fellow Helen Panagiotopoulos

U.S. commentators on inequality have historically inhabited elite positions in American society. Given their postionality—as academics, journalists, pollsters, and politicians—it is not surprising that political and policy responses to inequality in the U.S. are comprised of three main discourses: (1) the tolerance perspective, which draws on the “American dream” ideology, where hard work will result in “fair” outcomes, (2) the ignorance view, which explains that, even though Americans generally desire less inequality, they are largely unaware of how much it has risen, and (3) the ambivalence approach—adopted by experts in the field that are ambivalent because they are uncertain in how to address it, particularly in regards to racial inequality. Leslie McCall takes up a fourth approach—the opportunity model—in her talk on How Americans Think Politically about Economic Inequality. This perspective arises from the desire for equal opportunity and widespread access to employment and education.

McCall’s discussion of the opportunity model focuses on popular American beliefs about inequality and their political implications. Americans generally believe that income differences are too large, inequality continues to exist to benefit the rich and powerful, and large income differences are unnecessary for prosperity. On the issue of “hard work” and its role in “getting ahead,” the American public continues to buy into this ideology, yet there is broad recognition that there are barriers to opportunity such as parental education, coming from a wealthy family, and knowing the right people. The political implications of these views result in emphasizing the limitations of redistributive models—models that largely rest on elite partisan approaches, such as the conservative tendency to equalize opportunities like economic growth rather than outcomes. Democrats, on the other hand, have focused on “equalizing outcomes” through taxing and social spending, while other alternatives like the Civil Rights model advocate for racial and gender equity by aiming to equalize outcomes. While the Civil Rights model developed approaches to expand education and economic opportunities for groups discriminated against by virtue of their race, ethnicity, or gender, McCall underscores that the anti-discrimination strategy has proven insufficient on its own. Equal opportunities in the workplace and in universities through antidiscrimination policies remain within the opportunity paradigm by equalizing outcomes (through affirmative action) to equalize opportunities.

Responses to inequality have, therefore, focused on opportunities rather than outcomes or government intervention. Tailored to appeal to the American majority, who care more about opportunity than equality, Democrats, too, respond to growing inequality through the opportunity model. Given the political implications of American beliefs about inequality, several questions emerge from McCall’s discussion. How does, for example, the American public define the poor? What populations are left out in this model? What types of employment and opportunities in education exist, for instance, for immigrants in the U.S.? Do antidiscrimination laws protect migrant workers? What are the limitations in opportunities for these groups? Can inequality be addressed without engaging in policy, such as immigration reform? These questions foreground whether there can ever be equality of opportunity for all, an assumption the opportunity model appears to rely on.

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