At odds with ourselves

There is no magic pill for the political polarization gripping the country – no perfect candidate, no bipartisan commission. A look at the headlines makes it clear that the problem has roots far below the surface of politics.

It's increasingly clear that the people advocating liberal causes are actually leading conservative lives, while those defending conservative values and lifestyles are too often not living that way.

Try to find some cultural consensus in that phenomenon. I dare you.

The latest examination of this comes from researcher Stephanie Coontz, writing in The New York Times about what she calls "the new instability."

Coontz gathers together in one place all the inequality trends visited upon upper and working classes over the last generation or two:

  • In 1970, marriage rates and divorce varied little by level of education, but now the clear advantage goes to the better educated: higher rates of marriage, lower rates of divorce.
  • College educated parents spend more time with their children.
  • From 1947 to 1972, real wages for blue collar workers doubled; from 1979 to 2007, a young male high school graduate saw a 29 percent decline in real earnings.

According to Coontz, during the golden post-war years for blue collar workers, rising salaries encouraged delayed gratification and other forms of long-term thinking: a father could pass his trade or his job to his son; pensions for old age were secure, allowing blue collar parents both more leisure time with their children and funds to save for those kids' college educations. Nearly all of that has been wiped away since the 1970s – and the losses have been accelerated since the beginning of the Great Recession.

This leads, it seems to me, to severe conflicts between ideology and reality. Higher-educated, higher-paid professionals support various liberal programs, everything from long-term unemployment insurance, government health programs, even loosened restrictions on marijuana. But – because of their relatively stable incomes and relationships – they’re less likely to need these benefits themselves.

For workers, income inequality and wage stagnation has created a strong desire for the stability they see in other income brackets – and that they probably saw in their parents' or grandparents' lives. They are sensitive to attacks against traditional marriage and wary of government programs that seem soft on crime or seem to reward a lack of ambition. Yet the economic factors surrounding them have made marriages difficult to sustain and jobs almost impossible to keep long term – or even worth keeping long term.

So we have a nation at odds with itself, really. Both ends of the economic equation let themselves get distracted by the symptoms: hot button cultural issues, battles over health insurance, and fights about the deficit. But the root cause for all this polarization is the same: the widening gaps between economic strata and how that alters life as we actually live it, not as we wish it to be. It's a much harder issue to dig into – you can't put the solution on a placard and march outside the Supreme Court.

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