Normative Diversity

by Reihan Salam

When we talk about diversity, we tend to focus on racial or ethnic diversity. But I find normative diversity more interesting. Consider that the last few decades have seen religious revivals, the rise of alternative spiritualities, a large increase in the number of people who identify as secular, and an increase in immigration from regions where a wide variety of religious and ethical traditions that were largely unknown in the United States until very recently flourish. That is an obvious source of increasing normative diversity.

Then there are the less obvious material sources of normative diversity, e.g., a more advanced, more specialized economy means that there are new ways of making a living and, perhaps more importantly, of consuming. More educated societies tend to be more unequal, and they also tend to be more hospitable to “post-materialist” sensibilities — people who choose self-expression and leisure over conventional status markers.  

And that’s why I find the polarization that Ezra Klein and Farhad Manjoo describe very predictable. Ezra has been reading Farhad’s book True Enough, and I think it’s fair to say that he’s troubled by polarized views of the economy. Ezra begins his post by quoting from Farhad’s analysis of a Pew survey published in 2006:


“Public views of the economy are deeply split along political lines. Republicans generally see an economy that is thriving; 56% judge it as excellent or good. Democrats and independents see it much more negatively; just 28% of independents and 23% of Democrats say the economy is doing well.”

You could assume that this reflects differences in the two groups. Republicans, after all, are somewhat richer than Democrats. But Pew looked at that, too. “Even among those with household incomes of at least $75,000, more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats express a positive view of the economy (65% vs. 31%).”

“Even among those with household incomes of at least $75,000, more than twice as many Republicans as Democrats express a positive view of the economy (65% vs. 31%).”

“Think about this for a minute,” wrote Manjoo. “Here were people living in the same economy as one another, folks with a roughly equal likelihood of finding a job or seeing wealth in the housing market or hitting on hard times. They were swimming in the same pool — but half of them thought the water was lovely, while the other half were dying of chill.”

Having thought about this for more than a minute, I’m not remotely surprised. Would we expect two households earning the same amount to see the world the same way if one lived in Houston and another lived in Brooklyn, or if the breadwinner in one household was a veteran public schoolteacher in an affluent school district in suburban California versus an engineer working in the aviation industry in Wichita? Or what if one household is composed of foreign-born parents, for whom achieving middle-class status in one of the world’s richest countries represents tremendous upward mobility, while another household is headed by a native-born couple that experienced, by choice or by circumstance, considerable downward mobility? There has been plenty of discussion about the ideological lenses of lawyers and other credentialed professionals as opposed to managers and entrepreneurs. 

One way of looking at this kind of polarization — and I actually don’t think polarization is the right word for the phenomenon I have in mind — is that it reflects structural changes in American life. The Great Compression was an era of relative homogeneity. The Great Migration and the postwar boom drove this homogenization to some degree, as did the sharp decrease in the number of foreign-born Americans. But the world created in that era was fragile, and it’s been unraveling for forty years.

That, of course, doesn’t account for the Clinton years:


What caught my eye, however, is that it wasn’t always thus. “During Clinton’s first term, positive views of the economy rose gradually, and at about the same rate, among both Democrats and Republicans,” Pew notes. So something actually changed.

Something has changed, but it’s not clear what has changed. I’ve long thought that many of the gains experienced during the Clinton era could be traced to the brief triumph of HMOs, which briefly restrained growth in non-cash compensation. And that really was true for a wide swath of insured Americans.  

The optimistic spin, I guess, is that mediocre economies are more susceptible to polarized views than really good or really bad economies. The Clinton boom was great. The current economy is terrible. You don’t have to be glued to CNBC to know either fact. Conversely, the economy in 2005 and 2006 was, well, okay. Not great, but not horrible. Perhaps lacking any strong opinions on it, Americans just defaulted to their feelings about the political leadership.

The economy in 2005 and 2006 was great for upper-tail Americans (not just the top 0.01 percent, but a relatively wide swathe of skilled workers), partly for the reasons outlined in Wired for Innovation. But overall private sector job gains were weak throughout this period. Many workers were absorbed by expanding state and local payrolls during the Bush era. Yet these workers weren’t necessarily inclined to attribute their good fortune to the party in power, perhaps because President Bush wasn’t celebrating the boom in public sector job creation. 

The more pessimistic spin is that the rise of cable news and the Internet have made it much easier to cocoon yourself in information that takes your political biases as starting ideals and builds your understanding of the world to match them, and that this has actually changed how Americans understand the world.

I think this is true (I certainly see impressively extreme cocooning among my left-of-center friends here in New York and in Washington, D.C.), but I also think it’s natural and that the Clinton era was the aberration. Normative diversity is to be expected in a society like ours. And “objective” conditions vary in sprawling country, in which we’ve seen divergence in skill levels, patterns of marriage and cohabitation, and many other things that tend to structure our worldviews across regions. 

You’re perhaps seeing it in the business community’s view of the president, which is far more negative and hysterical than one might expect, given that he presided over multiple bailouts, huge tax cuts, industry-friendly reforms to both the health-care and financial sectors and more than $30 billion in lending help to small firms, and is currently pushing more tax breaks for business investment and R&D. Business leaders are the most conservative segment of the population, and also quite high-information, so they’d be a likely place for these distortions.

Suffice it to say, I disagree with Ezra on the wisdom of various Obama-era policy initiatives, and it’s not obvious to me that the “business community” — which, I should stress, is far from monolithic, and includes many people who are quite enthusiastic about fiscal stimulus and industrial policy, etc. — is wrong to be concerned. One could believe, as I do, that the multiple bailouts were ill-considered and likely to create long-term costs, that the huge tax cuts were poorly-designed, that the industry-friendly reforms were unsustainable and failed to address underlying problems yet nevertheless deployed all available carrots, etc. That there would be disagreement on all of this is hardly mysterious.

One could argue that the African American community’s devotion to the president is a more interesting and puzzling phenomenon than the business community’s skepticism. Yet I think it’s an understandable part of the normative diversity story. Consider that the U.S. Postal Service has been a great engine of upward mobility for the African American middle class, and, as Roger Waldinger argued in his brilliant Still the Promised City?, many African Americans gravitated towards public sector employment during the “white flight” era while new immigrants gravitated towards light industry and the service sector. This shapes perceptions of how the world works and who is on your side. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.