Cultural Consequences

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Since they lost the ability to appeal to racism, rightists have appealed to culture to explain why blatant unfairness isn’t really unfair.

Now, to be sure, the concept of culture they use is hardly different than the old racial saws: When you press a reactionary for his/her definition of “culture,” it turns out to be “the way people are,” i.e., the allegedly native, pre-social qualities of specific groups.

This, though, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a cultural dimension to human affairs. People do absorb sticky habits from extended collective experiences, and those habits can and do turn around and affect what people do next.

Thursday, the Pew Charitable Trust released a study that provides a paint-peeling proof of the real power of accumulated experience. In “Findings from a National Survey & Focus Groups on Economic Mobility,” Pew reported that, despite the times, ordinary people in the United States continue to mis-frame and mis-understand their chances for “economic mobility”:

Nearly eight in ten (79 percent) believe it is still possible for people to get ahead in the current economy. This remains true even among lower-income, less-educated and unemployed Americans. Such consensus is striking given that a near-unanimous 94 percent of Americans describe the current economic condition of the country negatively.

Americans remain optimistic about the future—a 72 percent majority believes their economic circumstances will be better in the next ten years. This optimism crosses party lines and demographic groups. African Americans are the most optimistic (85 percent) compared to whites and Hispanics (71 percent and 77 percent, respectively).

Seventy-four percent of Americans believe they have at least some control over their own economic situation, while only 43 percent think that other people are in control. By a 71 to 21 percent margin, Americans believe that personal attributes, like hard work and drive, are more important to economic mobility than external conditions, like the economy and economic circumstances growing up.

Personal attributes such as poor life choices and too much debt were the top explanations given for downward mobility.

Although previous research by the Economic Mobility Project has found considerable differences in economic mobility by race and gender, respondents ascribed relatively little importance to their impact on mobility (15 percent and 16 percent, respectively). Further, the Economic Mobility Project’s research found that there is a strong relationship between parents’ income and children’s adult income. However, coming from a wealthy family was among the least important factors that respondents cited (28 percent).

By a 71 to 21 percent margin, Americans believe it is more important to give people a fair chance to succeed than it is to reduce inequality in this country. Each demographic subgroup, including those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, concurs with the majority on this issue.

It’s no surprise, of course, that this familiar ideological package still holds sway. After all, this is the core topic — the dynamics of class inside the domestic “homeland” — on which the commoners simply must remain addled, in this, the flagship nation of market totalitarianism, the most heavily indoctrinated, commercialism-and-TV-penetrated society in human history.

How many times, even in recent months, have you heard the basic facts about class?

The real sources of wealth?

The deep imperatives and limits of corporate capitalism?

Now compare those zeroes to the number of times you’ve experienced the “anything is possible in America” diversion?

It’s still no contest out there, folks…