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American Exceptionalism and Equality of Opportunity


Exceptionalism has remained a defining American character since its independence. Everybody is taught that things are exceptional in America. Location, history, power, and wealth are the major national character traits with equality of opportunity remaining the most consistently cherished value justified on both efficiency and equity grounds for it leads power and wealth to the highest level.

It is fascinating to see how people embrace this defining value in everyday lives. Presidential elections like the current one provide critical moments to rethink these values. Arguments move back and forth between individual and collective responsibilities to level the playing field. Given United States history as the land of opportunity that drew immigrants from Europe to realize their dreams of economic prosperity, it is no surprise to see Americans defining equality of opportunity on a purely individual level. Everybody has certain strengths, which can lead to success or failure depending on their productive or unproductive uses. This has been the mantra upheld by generations regardless of what people inherit in wealth, power, or prestige. To question if the opportunity is leveled across individuals is considered anti-American today, going against exceptionalism.

Values are tested at times of crisis. As questions about America’s status as a global superpower have been hotly debated, the idea of equal opportunity has come under scrutiny once again. No doubt, individual opportunity is at the center of progress since an economy cannot prosper without individual progress. Studies have also shown that economic mobility across classes has declined, making it harder for children born to low-income parents to climb up the economic ladder. This structural change is also perceived widely with publicity of the so-called 99 percent. But the idea that the government can help to level the playing field across individuals never gets much traction. Why is it difficult for the society as a whole to accept that equality of opportunity is bound to deteriorate without a major shift in policies?

The answer has to do with the notion of exceptionalism passed through generations. Change is difficult and often painful. Accepting that the times have long passed since the country could accommodate increasing flow of immigrants in its vast landmass is proving exceedingly difficult. With global interdependence, the economic structure has become so complex that every country depends on others to run its own economic engine. To be successful, individuals need to compete with others in the same country but countries also need to compete with other countries at the same time. One’s success depends on personal strengths but increasingly also on the physical and social infrastructure provided by the government when it comes to global competition. Which individuals succeed and which individuals fail becomes less of a concern at the macro level, but the productivity of every single actor counts with unemployment of a large part of the workforce guaranteeing prolonged downturn as is happening today. Even when people have jobs, the kinds of jobs they have matter as deteriorating economic conditions of a large segment increases political demands in the 21st century democracy.

It is commendable to see today’s low wage workers holding dear the highly hierarchical, incentive structure with the hope that someday their own children can aspire to become entrepreneurial, rich or powerful. It speaks for the highly dynamic socioeconomic structure that has existed throughout history. What the person does not understand, however, is that socioeconomically speaking not everyone starts equal since today’s low-wage workers cannot afford to have their children in well-performing public schools, let alone in expensive private schools. Neither will they develop the capacity to fully harness the resources (connections, credential, and money) to think and act big. That a few examples are showcased where people have secured exceptional success suggests an exception rather than the norm.

Healthcare, education, and social security are some essential ingredients to maintain equality of opportunity. For those who are one paycheck or illness away from bankruptcy, for example, equality of opportunity becomes an empty shell without an assurance that their basic needs will be fulfilled should they lose jobs or incomes. This notion of basic security must be guaranteed for the unemployed or underemployed while they prepare themselves for better. This also applies to the old, disabled, or otherwise incapable to participate in the labor market.

It is not that the government does not provide basic security. Thanks to the New Deal of the 1930s and the civil rights movement and war on poverty of the 1960s, many programs have been in place to provide social protection. Medicaid and other social assistance programs target vulnerabilities of the poor and disabled. The contributory, unemployment insurance helps those with jobs if and when they become jobless. Social Security and Medicare seek to protect the elderly through pension and health insurance.

But the coverage of these programs is marginal especially for the non-elderly population. The benefits are small and mostly time-limited forcing individuals to reenter the labor market without enough preparation. Social assistance is also stigmatized discouraging participation. Rather than serving as a vehicle for enhancing opportunities, these programs are aimed at mere survival of recipients. Rising healthcare costs confer deleterious effects on the middle class, threatening with an easy fallback and a difficult leg up to equal opportunity.

The role of the government has invited contentious politics in the United States as elsewhere. Rather than focusing on whether or not the government should do more, however, the debaters are more interested in undoing the existing social protections. This form of electoral politics is not surprising given the current context of bloated budget deficits and growing national debt. Yet, what is surprising is the historical success of the political right to convince the electorate that a non-interventionist, small government guarantees equality of opportunity through individual freedom. There is not so much of a political left in the United States, so to speak. But the political center-left has failed to carry forward the message of equality of opportunity along the lines of the New Deal.

There has never been a time in which the political center-left has presented social protection and equality of opportunity as a social right of citizenship, the way it is presented in other advanced democracies. While the non-interventionist agenda resonates well among voters as it lowers their tax liabilities, the political actors, opinion leaders, and intellectuals have failed to convince that, at a time of growing

inequality and class immobility, a limited government surely endangers equality of opportunity. After all, what does it mean to say that Americans have some inalienable rights as citizens of this advanced democracy? Does equality of opportunity have any substantive meaning when economic mobility is on the verge of collapse? Does the non-interventionist approach help improve opportunity for the lower class and historically discriminated?

Tides are changing due to the ongoing economic crisis that has left massive scars. I see many people with experience of major life cycle shocks valuing these programs, the way they had never realized before. But one can only hope that the historical resistance to rethink equality of opportunity will dissipate with the changing ground reality.


By:  Udaya R Wagle, Western Michigan University, School of Public Affairs and Administration, Kalamazoo, MI

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