Americans still optimistic about their dreams of grandeur

Orange County Fair

In 2012 the top 1% of earners in America brought home nearly 20% of the income, their highest share since 1927.In 2012 the top 1% of earners in America brought home nearly 20% of the income, their highest share since 1927.

That said, the optimism many Americans evince for their economic prospects is a little puzzling. In light of recent campaigns to shed more light on income inequality—from the president’s agenda to the Occupy protests—one might think that more non-rich Americans would be less sanguine about their chances of making it big.

But American spirits are not easily dampened, and they are proving responsive to Republican accusations that Democrats are engaging in “class warfare” with all their talk about inequality. The political inefficacy of the inequality platform has led Barack Obama to dial it back significantly in this election year. As Zachary Goldfarb reports at the Washington Post, the president has already shifted his message from income inequality to the “more politically palatable theme of lifting the middle class”, with an emphasis on more popular issues, such as the minimum wage and the gender pay gap. “The pivot is striking for a president who identified inequality as one of his top concerns after his re-election,” Mr Goldfarb observes. Only last December the president called it “a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life and what we stand for around the globe.”

Why doesn’t such talk about inequality “register with the American public”? The most interesting answer comes, alas, from yet another Brit, Edmund Burke. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” over 200 years ago, the Irish statesman and political theorist denounced the enlightenment concept of equality as a “monstrous fiction”. Instead he proposed that the “true moral equality of mankind” consists of “the happiness that is to be found by virtue in all conditions,” however low or high. In other words, inequality is sewn into the fabric of society, and to suggest otherwise is to “aggravate and embitter that real inequality” which the French revolutionaries (and Mr Obama) “never can remove.” 

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