The Radical Revolution


Sure. But what’s extraordinary is the extent to which Americans have put up with and continue to put up with great disparities of wealth as long as they see the wealth as achieved. There’s very little resentment of rich ballplayers and rock stars. In any event, I’m less concerned with what happened later than with explaining the 1820s and 1830s. Americans then clearly accepted—at least for a while—unprecedented disparities of wealth, disparities far greater than those of the eighteenth century, and nonetheless called their era the age of equality. This has led some historians to think that the first post-revolutionary generations misunderstood their own culture, that theirs was the age of the uncommon man, not the common man. I think the historians are wrong and the contemporaries were right when they called it the age of the common man, because differences of wealth are the least mortifying and least humiliating of the various ways in which people on top have made those on the bottom feel their inferiority. If you think about it a bit, that’s true even today; if you’re told that the reason you’re inferior is your race or your bloodline or your father’s ethnicity, that’s not something you can do anything about. But if you’re told that you’re inferior because you haven’t got as much money as someone else, that’s something that you can theoretically do something about. To have wealth become the only source of distinction is to place only a weak social barrier between classes. That gave a lot of encouragement to a lot of ambitious people.

One of the great nineteenth-century hopes—it was John Stuart Mill’s—is that people who are not used to exercising political power will get better at it by doing so; they will become more rational. You don’t put much stock in that, do you?

I suppose there may be some evidence here and there, but I don’t have much confidence. I suppose you can work at educating people to be more disinterested; that’s what a liberal arts education is supposed to be about. But I don’t think it’s working all that well, except perhaps in environmental matters. Not much suggests that we are becoming more disinterested.

Your book seems to say, Look, this is what we’ve got. This is a very stable commercial culture in its political habits, and there are some very lovely things and some rather nasty things about it.

I think that’s true. That’s how I feel. I think we need to see all of the sides of what we’ve got. There are tawdry and unattractive sides, but American society is an extraordinary thing, now more than ever. We have a truly universal society; everybody’s here. No race, nationality, or ethnic group hasn’t got somebody in the United States living as a citizen. It’s an extraordinary thing, and it is a product of our being so pure a commercial society without any particular claims of ethnicity or race. I think that every once in a while we ought to acknowledge that this democratic inclusiveness remains immensely impressive.