A post-inflection new social contract, Part 2: Can we agree on a compelling vision?

American democracy astonished de Tocqueville — can it be renewed?

Social changes won’t take hold without a vision that a wide swath of stakeholders can get behind — are we too polarized for that?

Thought Spark

D x V x P: A Formula for Change

A useful way of thinking about whether a given scenario is becoming more or less likely is to think about this framework for change — it requires constructive dissatisfaction with the current stage, a vision for the potential of a future state, and processes that remove obstacles for getting from here to there.

This article is focused on the “vision” part of whether we are indeed heading toward a new social contract, along the line’s of Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

The American vision — “all men are created equal”

The Declaration of Independence asserted that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The people who were equal were white and male. The concept didn’t apply to women or non-white people.

The vision was given a violent update when, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the country had a “second founding,” and the rules changed. By law, America would henceforth be a multiracial society, an epic change.

That still didn’t include women, and the promise of equality for men of color was thwarted, often brutally. It took until 1920 before (mostly white) women were able to vote. It took another 50+ years before Black women had access to the ballot.

The Civil Rights era of the 1960’s saw more laws aimed at greater equality for more people. Despite progress on some fronts, the nation remained as one historian put it, “two societies, separate but unequal.” Nonetheless, shared prosperity for most people was reducing economic inequality. This was not to last.

The new inequality is economic

American economic inequality is among the highest in the world, much higher than its historical norms.

A set of economic policies variously called neoliberalism or ‘trickle down’ economics dramatically exacerbated income inequality. According to the Pew Research Center, the highest-earning 20% of families made more than half of all U.S. income in 2018. On the losing end of this arrangement have been workers in the lower 90%, who the Rand Corporation recently concluded would be $52 trillion (yes, with a “T”) wealthier if the wealth distribution within the country had remained where it was in about 1975.

Reducing inequality — potentially a new “V”

Many policy proposals that would decrease inequality and establish a larger role for government are popular with a majority of Americans. Most disapproved of the Republican tax cuts of 2017. Most think increased minimum wages, providing paid maternity leave, offering access to healthcare and free college would be good for the society. The approval of unions hasn’t been this high in fifty years.

And yet…Identity polarization

Agreement about what would go into a vision is running smack into a countervailing force that could prevent American society from coalescing around a “V.” This is the deep and widespread presence of what academics call “affective polarization.”

Political conflict used to take place around policy choices. Today, policy discussions take a back seat to disagreements about identity. People will vote against their own self-interest. Divisiveness, not a joint vision, becomes dominant, and is exacerbated by politicians and other public figures who benefit from fanning the flames of grievance, dislike and negativity.

Whither the vision in an “us vs. them” society?

This brings me to the biggest negative signal for the emergence of a Roosevelt-style new social contract — namely, that for many people the outcome is not a question of whether they are better off or not. The outcome lies in whether their side “wins.” This in turn is a huge challenge for establishing a lasting “V” that the majority of people can rally around.

The contrasting scenario, which I have discussed widely, is one I call “Les Miserables.” This is that the norms of bad jobs, continued inequality and lack of access to the levers of social mobility persist. This scenario is one in which violent conflict figures prominently, resources are contested and little is done to rebuild the economic well being of the majority.

While we might not prefer this scenario to be the one in our future, the lack of a broadly shared “V” suggests that, absent a big change in policy, that’s the one we’re headed toward.

Is there any hope? Perhaps. Scholars have found that a huge part of the “us vs. them” framing of our political discourse stems from stereotypical misunderstanding of the composition of the “other” party. As they say, when provided with the facts, “respondents think the other party is less extreme, and affective polarization decreases (i.e., they like the other party more). In essence, people dislike the other party in part because they (inaccurately) perceive it to be quite different from themselves and full of disliked groups. When this error is corrected, and they realize the partisan out-group is more similar to them than they had realized, animus lessens.”

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.

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