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Beyond Bread-and-Butter Politics

Clint Reilly

The post-war explosion of wealth and the spread of basic financial security to an ever-wider range of Americans has altered the national political agenda.

In the Depression Era of the 1930s and the difficult World War II years of the decade following, working class Americans skirted poverty at best or were trapped in a hand-to-mouth existence.

But by the 1970s the sociologist Ben Wattenberg was able to proclaim in his book, The Real America, “Something has happened in the United States that has never happened before anywhere: the massive majority of the population is now in the middle class.”

Brink Lindsay – vice president for research at the Cato Institute – expanded on the theme in his 2007 book, The Age of Abundance, arguing that unprecedented prosperity has fundamentally transformed America’s politics.

Borrowing from the theories of well known behavioral psychologist Abraham Maslow, Lindsay argued that as economic security spreads to a wider and wider range of citizens, aspirations turn higher:

“There was plenty of bread in the affluent society so now what? What new challenges would emerge and what new motivations would rise to the fore, now that the age old struggle against scarcity had been won?”

Lindsay quotes Maslow’s famous question: “It is quite true that man lives by bread alone but what happens to man’s desires when his belly is chronically filled?”

In the 1980s Daniel Yankelovich, one of America’s premier public opinion researchers, authored a breakthrough book on this subject titled New Rules.

“By the late 1970s,” Yankelovich wrote, “my firm’s studies showed more than seven out of 10 Americans spending a great deal of time thinking about themselves and their inner lives. The rage for self-fulfillment had spread to virtually the entire population.”

For some, materialism’s rise led to the revival of religious fundamentalism. The “religious right” adopted a crusade bent on the restoration of moral values to public life.

A social agenda surfaced that drove the voting patterns of many Midwestern and Southern Americans as powerfully as prior economic crisis had mobilized their forebears. Their power grew until it peaked in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, which sent George Bush to the White House.

For other Americans, the outworn survival agenda of 19th and 20th-century politics was replaced by a quality of life promise.

Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, demonstrated the power of a new quality of life issue such as global warming. The penetrating documentary cut to the core of our dependence on fossil fuels for energy and made an eloquent plea for altering our entire way of life.

Protecting the environment, conserving natural resources and saving the planet have become imperatives for political action in the 21st century.

The explosion of fitness studios, nutritional education, innovative surgeries and therapies highlight a major emphasis among post-war baby boomers on improving lifestyles and extending life.

Unlike the 1940s when average life expectancy hovered around 63 years, Americans can now expect to live about 15 years longer. And with advances in medicine and nutrition, those years are often vibrant and productive.

Many Western and Northern European countries have joined the United States in creating unprecedented prosperity for their citizens.

These countries provide cradle-to-grave national health care systems. Countries like Ireland now offer every child access to a free college education. Realizing the full potential of each human being has become a political promise in many post-materialist societies.

Certainly, Obama and McCain will have dueling economic plans in the 2008 election. But on the margins of American presidential politics lurks a post-materialist agenda that appeals to an ever-growing constituency of affluent, educated Americans.

Their concern is not whether or not they will survive, but the quality of their lives and the lives of their children.

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