For both parties, the emerging theme of economic mobility is often a reluctant, second choice.
Deep down, many Democrats would prefer to focus on economic inequality. But while Americans have theoretical concerns about the income gap, they are consistently skeptical about government’s role as leveler. Explicit talk of redistribution doesn’t get a politician very far.
Deep down, many Republicans would prefer to focus on economic growth. But this abstract goal does not touch on the economic concerns of most Americans, including stagnant wages and difficulties getting (and affording) education and skills. In recent presidential elections, Republican talk of entrepreneurship and risk taking has been disconnected from working-class struggles and middle-class fears.
So both parties are led, along different routes, to talk about mobility and equality of opportunity. This embrace is largely rhetorical. When Democrats refer to stalled mobility, they are generally still talking about inequality. When Republicans embrace mobility, they often mean cutting taxes and reducing regulations.
But it would be a mistake to use “rhetorical” in a dismissive manner. As any speechwriter knows, a change of language can help drive a shift in policy. The challenge, as Yuval Levin of National Affairs puts it, is “to use the move toward mobility rhetoric to drive a substantive move.”
The parties have backed into America’s most urgent domestic priority: resisting the development of a class-based society in which birth equals destiny. This division runs like an ugly, concrete wall across the American ideal. On one side are the wealthy and educated, living in communities characterized by greater family stability, economic opportunity and neighborhood cohesion. On the other side is the working class, living in communities featuring economic stagnation, family instability and neighborhood breakdown. The best advice for success? Be born on the right side of the wall. That is not a very American-sounding answer.
The entry-level commitment for Republicans in this debate is a recognition that equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social and political achievement. Economic growth is important — but its benefits are shared only if people have the knowledge and human capital to succeed in a modern economy. This preparation requires active, effective, reform-oriented government at every level — and forbids an ideological appeal that is merely anti-government.
Democrats lay claim to the mobility issue by arguing that extreme inequality undermines mobility — an assertion for which the economic evidence is mixed. In this view, the job of helping the poor is inseparable from cutting the 1 percent down to size. At a recent economic forum, a fellow panelist — a prominent liberal economist — admitted that wage subsidies such as the earned-income tax credit are the most direct and efficient way to help low-income workers. But she still advocated a raise in the minimum wage, precisely because Wal-Mart would be punished in the process.
If this attitude is viewed as the starting point of the mobility debate, Republicans will sit it out. Democrats who insist on this approach are sabotaging the possibility of political progress. The public goal that liberals and conservatives might share is not the equalization of wealth; it is the equalization of opportunity. And that is difficult enough. After decades of economic growth and rising productivity, after decades of social spending, now about $1 trillion a year (at all levels of government), mobility in the United States remains stalled and lags behind that of France, Canada and much of Scandinavia.
The presidential field is just beginning to engage these issues. Hillary Clinton is tacking sharply to the left — she would “topple” the 1 percent — with all the disarming authenticity of Mitt Romney declaring himself an “extreme” conservative. But she will surely shift rightward on equal opportunity in the general election, and probably in the most politically obvious and heavy-handed manner possible.
On the reform Republican side, Jeb Bush talks of “the right to rise,” has promised a “new vision” of urban renewal and has locked down a strong team of policy advisers and experts. But they have yet to be utilized in any serious, or at least public, way. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) is the most natural fit for a Republican mobility message, which is illustrated by his family story. He is easily the most policy-oriented of the current Republican field, having proposed measures on college affordability, pro-family tax reform and welfare reform that consolidate a number of benefits to the working poor into a more generous wage subsidy.
Perhaps the greatest need in American politics: a presidential candidate who passionately advances a vision of mobility instead of settling for it.