The US has sold itself as the ‘land of opportunity,’ where a hotel bellboy can, by dint of hard graft, become the proprietor of the business.
This ideal has eroded as wealth has become concentrated and as traditional educational and career options have been closed off.
John Cassidy, of The New Yorker magazine, quotes from data gathered by the US central bank, the Federal Reserve. Known clunkily as the distributional national accounts, the data contain detailed, reliable estimates of US household wealth dating back to 1989. Since then, the gap between the top and bottom has expanded at a frightening rate.
Regrettably, our own central bank has not conducted a similar exercise. We can safely assume, however, that Ireland — despite persistently highlevels of deprivation, often linked toaddiction — is a more equal society in many key respects than the US.
Of course, access here to good healthcare, education, and housing is highly skewed, but we have a social safety net, whose significance should not be discounted.
The Federal Reserve figures tell another story, of a fortunate few accumulating wealth at a scale unimaginable across much of Europe. In late 1989, the richest 1% had an overall net worth of just under $5 trillion, or €4.5tn.
By the end of 2018, the top 1% could boast combined assets, net of borrowings, of almost $30.5tn — a six-fold rise in real terms. The bottom 50% — thatis the average American — had acombined net worth of $770bn in 1989, which had risen to only $1.2tn by 2018.
Over this period, the cost of properties has soared, while access to private education has become far more expensive in real terms. Not surprisingly, US political life has become more polarised.
Ironically, it is an independent senator from the small state of Vermont, Bernie Sanders — a self-described socialist — who has come closest of those on the left to mounting a successful takeover of a mainstream party, the Democrats, in 2016.
Since then, the leftist group has gained ground on the centrist Clinton-Obama wing, currently led by the powerful House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and former vice-president Joe Biden, the current front runner in the Democrats’ primary race. Already, a couple of fascinating sub-plots in the long-running campaign are being played out.
Mr Sanders is in a fierce contest with Elizabeth Warren for the leadership of the left-leaning Democrats. Warren is the senator for Massachusetts, the political stomping ground of the Kennedys.
Ms Warren has been carving out a name for herself as a progressive thinker. Her biography also boosted her credibility: her mother went out to work in a department store at 50, after her father fell ill.
Warren herself, as a law professor with two young children, struggled. As she recalls: “I was failing my classes and failing my children.” A kindly aunt saved her. So one of Warren’s first policy proposals was an ambitious plan for universally affordable childcare.
Ms Warren is a policy wonk, but with an instinct for the personal. In a recent interview, she quoted from ‘Scriptures,’ ‘Matthew 25’: “For I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was in prison and you visited me.”
Described as “the woman with a million plans,” she has made her name as an intellectual leader since her election to the senate, in 2012.
There is a real gap between her vision and the centrist thinking that predominated in the Barack Obama years, but this can be over-emphasised.
His administration may have bailed out Wall Street and the auto industry, but it also pushed through the Obamacare affordable health care policy against huge opposition, not least from leading Catholic bishops.
Ms Warren grew up in the midwestern state of Oklahoma and was a supporter of the Republicans until she was 40. She eschews the class-war language of certain high-profile young Congress members, preferring to sponsordetailed legislation aimed at tax reform, and improved welfare.
She would break up America’sbiggest tech companies. On trade, she leans towards scepticism — with an eye perhaps to labour union backing — and was critical of president Obama’s trade policies.
Interestingly, she scores least well among minorities, particularly older African-Americans, many of whom back front-runner Biden. The real battle to be fought out in the next seven or eight months will be between Ms Warren and Mr Sanders. At some point, she may face a decision on how best to tack towards the centre.
If she can achieve common ground with Ms Pelosi and Mr Biden, she would then be able to influence the Democratic platform or, indeed, emerge as its leader.
To knock out Trump, she will need to win over suburbanites, who still worry about the threat of high taxes and“socialism.”
Democrat primary voters in minority communities instinctively sense that what counts in the end is the securing of power. Their pragmatism is the product of harsh experience. Other voters may lack the same contact with reality.
Hillary Clinton could never shake off the charge that she was too cosy with money and the moneyed class, too fond of fundraising and dining with celebrities.
Ms Warren’s government experience is confined to senior legislative work, but her back story and personal warmth, combined with a sharp intellect, could yet secure her real influence, if not the ultimate prize. A Pelosi-Warren alliance would be something to behold.
The task of remaking America along more socially progressive lines could bring benefits stretching far across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, along with some significant challenges, of course.
The alternative scenario does not bear thinking about.