CHAPTER 5. THE AMERICAN POLITICAL MODEL

 

 

 

With such brilliant analyses of the situation in the South, why have social scientists underemphasized the key factor of race in America as a whole? The answer is partly found in the nature of the South. Because that section's racial troubles have been so serious, social scientists have tended to ignore racial problems in other parts of the country. Theorists have tended to gloss over the fact that slavery and racism also existed in the North. (This is slowly being corrected; see Wilson 1973.) But the real reason for the underemphasis on race among liberal social scientists is that they largely accept equality-of-opportunity racism.

Daniel J. Boorstin (1987) in Hidden Theory says that the United States has been infertile in political theory because the country has not needed one. Americans believe that the settlers and the founding fathers gave the country a complete political theory. Indeed, American institutions and values are taken as "givens." This sense of self-satisfaction may indeed be one of the reasons for not seeking a political theory of the American nation. It may be equally true that Americans did not want to delve too deeply into an explanation of their society for fear of what they might find underneath the beautiful oratory.

Another reason for not delving deeply into American society is that in the early stages of American economic development racism did not stop economic progress. The country was relatively rich in resources, and the push for free education and equality of opportunity for the large white middle class meant that the United States was in the forefront of economic development. It is as if theorists shouted, "How can you criticize a way of life that has proven so successful?" Now the capitalist world is entering a new phase where economic cooperation and government support for business are highly important. And now racism has become a serious obstacle to economic development because it keeps the United States divided.

In building a theory of the American political system, race is here given primary importance, but this is no monocausal theory. The orthodox interpretation of American society as summarized by Max Lerner is helpful, and we use all the factors he mentioned. But this standard theory underplays the racial factor. When race is added to the orthodox theory of America, one is able to see the dominance of American politics by the white middle-class. The political changes in the American system always take place in terms of this middle class dominance. And these political changes have been several. The United States has undergone five major extensions of equality: the abolition of slavery, progressive era reforms, passage of woman suffrage, creation of the welfare state, and destruction of the southern apartheid system. (There are six major extensions of equality if one includes the Jacksonian revolution itself.)

The American system of racism has meant that the white middle class primarily determines the large fluctuations in American politics. In most instances, the white middle class is so conservative that the upper class can agree with its actions. Compared to the gap between the middle and lower classes in America, there simply is no fundamental gulf between the American middle and upper classes. Therefore we can analyze the large- scale changes in American politics by focusing primarily on the actions of the white middle class.

In short, large-scale political changes in America are the result of changes in perceptions of the self-interests of the white middle class. When these people feel their position is threatened from below, they adopt very conservative policies to put a stop to egalitarian trends. When the middle class feels it is being hurt by the overly selfish actions of the upper class or by large scale trends, they vote for liberal-conservative changes. Both sets of changes are justified by using the equality-of-opportunity doctrine. Nevertheless, all major extensions of equality never fundamentally alter the reality of the racial caste system or challenge the equality-of-opportunity racism that underlies the society.

Equality of Opportunity Flexibility

The great virtue of equality of opportunity is that it means so many things to so many people. Thus it is acceptable not only to the two privileged classes in America (the upper and middle classes) but also to all regions of the country. J. R. Pole in The Pursuit of Equality in American History (1978:1) has noted that "the evolutionary survival of the idea of equality in America has owed much to its proven ability to adapt to varied and often hostile environments by meaning different things to different minds, and furnishing rival interests with equally satisfying terms of moral reference."

The theory can be used by conservatives and liberals. Conservatives can maintain that since the economic game in America is free and equal, the distribution of power and rewards is fair and just at any given time. Liberals can use the same theory by calling for the elimination of existing inequalities that block access to equality of opportunity.

The flexibility of equality of opportunity has facilitated a dynamic tension in the American system between the dominant conservatism and persisting liberalism. Periodically, the nation attempts to eliminate barriers to equality. To call these attempts cycles is to impose too much order to the system. The existence of many wars and the great length of time needed to win some campaigns for equality make it impossible to impose any exact figure of time between these periods of rest and change. But the history of the country certainly can be seen as consisting of periodic thrusts for greater equality followed by periods of retrenchment. And yet the underlying racist system remains largely intact.

A Political Model of Racist America

Figure 6.1 summarizes the theory of America as a basically conservative, racist society that periodically introduces progressive changes. The first diagram illustrates that the usual condition is for the United States to remain conservative. This is primarily the result of the racial division within the nation. Looking at the second diagram, one sees that periodically, the white middle class in the entire nation or within the dominant region thinks its social position is threatened. This perceived threat is often brought on by outside forces, but more frequently results from political inaction. Conservative political forces resist demands for greater equality increases until a crisis develops. Political unrest increases, and the system begins to function poorly. Portions of the middle class begin to realize that some adjustments are necessary to protect the overall conservative system and begin to vote with liberal forces to change the system. The middle class seeks justification for its political goals in a more liberal interpretation of equality of opportunity. They then elect a more liberal president, who pushes for social change. But the changes are usually a compromise, taking the wishes of the conservatives into consideration.

Liberals and radicals are often not able to contain their joy at winning power and push for even more equality of opportunity. This threatens more of the middle class, and these people vote conservative again. In addition, conservative groups start to mobilize their forces to push back the liberal reforms. And so the system swings back and forth between conservative and liberal dominance, always beset with conflict, but always preserving the basic conservative core. The ideas used to justify these political swings are conservative or liberal versions of equality-of-opportunity racism. Both conservative and liberals always reject radical ideas as inappropriate to a racist nation.

The following parts of the book detail these trends in American history, but it is a history purged of equality-of-opportunity racism. This results in a very different perspective on American history. An additional need for such a history is the tendency of American sociologists to study only the history of America as it relates to discrimination and prejudice. One cannot hope to understand American society by concentrating only on the most powerless groups in the society. The focus has to be on the white middle class.

                 

Summary of Extensions of Equality

Studying the extensions of equality in the United States enables us to determine some of the factors responsible for large-scale social reforms in the nation. It also helps answer the question of what kind of country the United States is, and what forces have worked for and against social change. Table 6.1 summarizes the case studies for the five major increases in equality along with the Jacksonian revolution. The last row indicates the scenario for future change.

Demands for greater equality arise when the middle class feels hurt by inegalitarian trends or policies or when regionalism threatens the middle class of the more powerful sections of the country. This social-change mechanism is reinforced by economic and demographic forces. A mobilized middle class or northern section then votes for more liberal presidents. Usually the president gets an assist from Congress because liberal congressmen are also elected by the squeezed middle class. In activist periods, the nation relies on the president to push a liberal legislative package. Congress usually takes a passive role. In certain instances, presidents have had to fight against Congress, but these tend to be exceptions. For example, Theodore Roosevelt faced opposition because he gained the office through the assassination of President McKinley. Lincoln faced considerable opposition, but this was largely because he was politically to the right of Congress.

The Supreme Court almost always plays a negative role regarding equality. The only time that the Court assisted major social change was when the Court was out of step with the nation in a liberal direction during the fight against the southern apartheid system.

Another great opponent of egalitarian reforms has been the South. For five of the six equality reforms, the South has opposed the social changes. That once economically backward region has traditionally seen any reform as a threat to the racial apartheid system and so has opposed egalitarian measures. Still another frequent foe of change has been American business.

The biggest obstacle to social change in the United States is still racism because it is behind the structure and essential character of conservative America. It is racism that prevents many voters from supporting progressive increases in equality. The national pattern of racism may blunt the thrusts for reform in any future liberal periods.

 

Back to Main Page Table of Contents

Return to Home Page