The Fifth Narrative

Can the Biden administration build a more equal America?

Joe Biden
Adam Schultz / The White House

In the past few weeks, the Biden administration’s domestic agenda has come into sharp focus: a bipartisan Senate bill for physical and environmental infrastructure projects nearing passage; new statistics showing that COVID-19 relief has dramatically reduced poverty across demographic groups; an executive order aimed at concentrated market power, promoting competition and worker power; a $3.5 trillion budget proposal with large outlays in social spending, paid for by taxes on the rich and corporations; presidential speeches on behalf of better jobs for Americans at the bottom and middle of the economy. The sum of these and other policies is more ambitious, and more ideologically pointed, than the Biden campaign slogan “Build Back Better.” President Biden is using the resources of the federal government to reverse nearly half a century of growing monopoly, plutocracy, and inequality. Regardless of whether this agenda goes far enough, or whether Congress allows it to go anywhere at all, the administration is pointing the country in a fundamentally new direction.

Biden hasn’t given this new direction a name. His mind goes to the particular, not the general. He speaks in sayings, anecdotes, and exhortations. He provides reassurance, not inspiration. But successful presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Reagan understood that the people need a vision. If Biden won’t give his a name, I’ll try.

In “The Four Americas,” an article adapted from my book Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, I described the four dominant narratives in this country over the past half century: Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. My taxonomy does not describe the whole country—it’s not a group portrait of 330 million people. By definition, a list of dominant narratives leaves out other narratives and the people they represent. During these past five decades, the transracial working class, which once made up the backbone of the Democratic Party, with a narrative of the “fair shake,” has seen its power battered. Today, workers in the service sector, caregiving jobs, and remnants of the blue-collar trades have a kind of second-class status. They suffer not just economic difficulty but also social inferiority and cultural invisibility.

None of the four narratives I described speaks to or for these Americans. Instead, Free America answers the ambitions of the business class and corporations; Smart America describes the utopia of educated professionals; Real America voices the resentments of the white Christian heartland; Just America believes in a metaphysics of group identity that divides the working class. Some Republicans, like Senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio, imagine transforming their party into the electoral vehicle of Americans without college degrees. It could happen, if the party first extricated itself from the grip of bigotry and corporate capture—but then it would no longer be the Republican Party.

It’s one of Biden’s unexpected strengths that he doesn’t belong to any of the four dominant narratives. Instead, he precedes them. Though he came of age in the turmoil of the 1960s, he has the instincts and convictions of a politician from his childhood years, the Roosevelt and Truman era, practicing the politics of the fair shake. His out-of-touchness has allowed him to avoid most of the traps that lie in wait for Democratic politicians. When it comes to the culture wars over issues like race and gender, crime and policing, and immigration, Biden comes down on the side of common decency and common sense, then he moves on. He doesn’t linger to engage in the presidential equivalent of a Twitter food fight. (Twitter is alien to Biden.) He doesn’t highlight the battle lines when doing so would alienate half the country. These qualities enabled Biden—the candidate who seemed, to media and political elites, the most outdated and irrelevant of them all—to win the presidency.

The progressive political researcher David Shor studied data from the 2020 election and concluded that Democrats cannot hope to win future elections if they emphasize “ideological polarization.” Working-class Black and Latino voters tend to be further to the right than the white progressives with college degrees who have come to dominate the party, Shor told New York magazine; progressive messaging on immigration and policing pushed some of these nonwhite voters toward the Republicans, keeping the Democratic congressional majority to a bare minimum and nearly giving Trump the election. But Democratic positions on economic issues, which are more popular and less polarizing—increasing the minimum wage, investing in education and jobs—could save the party from a decade of electoral defeats. Biden, like Democrats of an earlier era, uses policy to cast his net as widely as possible—to include rather than divide.

Stumping for his infrastructure plan in La Crosse, Wisconsin, last month, he invoked the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system, and the internet as earlier projects that required major government investments and transformed American life. He spoke about extending broadband access and other essential goods to rural areas, meaning the Trump heartland. He quoted his father saying that work is a matter of dignity, not just a paycheck. “The jobs that are going to be created here—largely, it’s going to be those for blue-collar workers, the majority of whom will not have to have a college degree to have those jobs,” Biden said. “A lot of those folks are being left behind now. The guys I grew up with in Scranton and Claymont are being left behind … This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.” He added his signature line: “We’ve shown ourselves that American democracy can come through. There’s nothing—nothing, nothing—beyond our capacity when we come together as one nation.” Biden speaks as if strengthening the working class and creating national unity are two sides of the same coin—as if only the selfish and wicked could fail to see the goodness of his agenda.

Call this narrative—Biden’s narrative—Equal America. It has a particular meaning in the present context.

Such a narrative has the advantage of going to the root of American identity. The moral equality of all human beings is the first idea in the Declaration of Independence, the one on which all the others are premised. It’s the basis for political equality—for our system of self-government. When Alexis de Tocqueville came here in the 1830s from aristocratic France, he observed that the most striking feature in democratic America was “the equality of conditions.” By this he didn’t mean equality of outcomes. He meant a society without hereditary status, in which everyone, regardless of origin, could look each other in the eye on equal terms, granted the same moral worth, enjoying the same rights and opportunities, free to pursue happiness without being excluded from any sphere. This equality was not just an idea but also a “passion”—the “ardent, insatiable, eternal, and invincible” love of democratic peoples.

After Tocqueville, in Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman gave poetic expression to equality as a democratic faith, a spiritual bond between citizens akin to universal brotherhood and sisterhood:

He says indifferently and alike How are you friend? to the President at his levee,

And he says Good-day brother, to Cudge that hoes in the sugar-field,

And both understand him and know that his speech is right.

He walks with perfect ease in the capitol,

He walks among the Congress, and one Representative says to another,

Here is our equal appearing and new.

The American facts have always been at painful odds with this ideal. In Tocqueville’s and Whitman’s age, equality was massively denied to most Americans, including Black people (the majority of them enslaved), Indigenous people, and women. The denial of equality has persisted throughout U.S. history. But the passion for it has also persisted, and because this passion is so fundamental, the denial always leads to social conflict. In many countries, entire groups are subordinate by birth without ever disturbing the peace, but not here. Equality is a kind of hidden code that explains so much of American life, as Tocqueville noted, from customs and institutions to opinions and feelings. It explains why American culture is so blatant and accessible, why American billionaires wear torn jeans, why foreigners find Americans engagingly or annoyingly breezy, why American waiters announce, “Hi, my name’s Justin and I’ll be taking care of you tonight.”

Equality also leads to the individualism that always threatens to tear apart our social bonds and make this country ungovernable. In a society of equals, people focus on their own affairs as if they owe nothing to others and expect nothing from them. “Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain,” Tocqueville wrote. “Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link.” This individualism of equals can produce extremes of inequality and new forms of aristocracy—the “industrial aristocracy” that Tocqueville foresaw in the mid-19th century, the “merit” aristocracy that dominates American society today. The way that Americans can overcome individualism, Tocqueville wrote, is with freedom—the institutions and practice of self-government.

The University of Michigan philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has proposed an idea of equality similar to Tocqueville’s and Whitman’s. She calls it “democratic equality”—a social relation in which people meet as equals, based on mutual respect, without hierarchies of oppression and humiliation. In Anderson’s account, equality and freedom are not doomed, as is often supposed, to eternal conflict. Equality is what guarantees freedom. “The social condition of living a free life is that one stand in relations of equality with others,” she wrote two decades ago in “What Is the Point of Equality?” Between true equals there can be no coercion, exploitation, or marginalization. “To live in an egalitarian community, then, is to be free from oppression to participate in and enjoy the goods of society, and to participate in democratic self-government.”

This democratic equality doesn’t depend on or promise equal outcomes. Resources, money, talent, intelligence, and luck will always be unevenly distributed—nor should their distribution be taken as evidence of inherent inferiority. Democratic equality simply means that everyone’s worth in society is the same, and that everyone must have the ability to participate in political and economic life on an equal basis as a citizen. But extremes of wealth and poverty, of power and powerlessness, hinder that ability, and so democratic equality can’t be indifferent to how much money people make or whether they have a voice in their workplace. A minimum-wage cashier at a dollar store who has to worry all the time about feeding her children and staying in her house is neither equal nor free. Her ability to function as a citizen is barely notional. “You can’t expect civic virtue from a disfranchised class,” Walter Lippmann wrote in 1914. And also: “The first item in the program of self-government is to drag the whole population well above the misery line.”

An agenda based on the narrative of Equal America would repair the safety net; give employees more power in the workplace; regulate and if necessary break up corporate monopolies, including social-media platforms; and direct public investment into disadvantaged regions and sectors. It would diminish the all-or-nothing stakes of obtaining a degree from the right college by, for example, raising the status and improving the conditions of jobs that don’t require one. It would weaken the aristocracy of “merit” by moving school funding away from local property taxes, which produce great inequalities; by pushing universities to abandon legacy admissions; and by applying the estate tax to professionals as well as plutocrats. Programs like national service would bring together Americans of every background to work toward common goals as equal citizens. The four narratives that currently dominate our thinking would have to give up the elements in each that undermine equality.

I don’t know if an agenda for Equal America can succeed; the chances seem small. I don’t know if it would benefit one party or the other, or if it would ease the fever of our politics. But I believe it would be widely popular, and I can’t think of a better one.

The word equality has recently fallen into disfavor in some circles. Among progressives it’s been challenged and largely replaced by a related word: equity. This change, so slight you might not have noticed it, has far-reaching implications for a narrative based on democratic equality among all citizens.

Shortly after the 2012 election, a business professor at the University of Cincinnati named Craig Froehle created and posted an illustration of two pictures, side by side, in which three boys of uneven heights (and presumably ages) are trying to watch a baseball game over a wooden fence. In the image on the left, all three are standing on a single box, so that the tallest and second tallest can see the game, while the view of the shortest is blocked by the fence. In the image on the right, the tallest boy has no box, the second tallest stands on one box, and the shortest stands on two boxes, which puts all three heads at the same able-to-enjoy-the-game level. Above the two images is the word “EQUALITY,” with “to a conservative” over the one on the left and “to a liberal” over the one on the right.

The illustration quickly became popular, and people began producing new versions. The baseball game became an apple tree, a bookshelf, a chalkboard, and a sunrise over mountains. One version had the captions “This is EQUALITY” and “This is JUSTICE”; another, “This is Equal” and “This is Fair.” But in the version that stuck, the contrast is between “Equality” and “Equity,” with equality meaning “sameness” and equity meaning “fairness.” By the middle of the decade, equity became common currency among education and health professionals, consciously used in place of equality. I first heard the distinction around 2015, in a discussion about standardized testing with an educator friend. She stopped me at the word equality and suggested equity instead. When I asked what the word meant to her, she said, “Giving everyone what they need.” And equality? “Giving everyone the same thing.” The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a leading philanthropy, posted the distinction on its website in a glossary of “Racial Justice Definitions”: “Equity involves trying to understand and give people what they need in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things.”

It’s strange, though, to define equality as “sameness.” A different, older definition of equality justified social insurance, social-welfare payments, Head Start, the Earned Income Tax Credit, antitrust policy, equal-employment-opportunity laws, anti-discrimination laws—numerous efforts by the federal government, some more successful than others, to remove barriers to equal opportunity and advance fairness. The progressive income tax is a century-old example of giving people what they need rather than giving everyone the same thing. If equality is incompatible with progressive taxation, then sure, let’s abolish equality. The new version is so barren and stinting that it could pass for a definition of injustice, like Anatole France’s tart observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges.”

By this standard, who wouldn’t choose equity? The linguistic change accompanies a political one. Equity reflects the new progressivism’s impatience with traditional liberal reforms, its passion for achieving social and racial justice.

Last year, equity entered national politics. In the last week of the presidential race, the Biden-Harris campaign released a short video called Equality vs. Equity, narrated by Kamala Harris. It depicts two men preparing to climb a mountain. In most previous versions of the meme, the race of the characters isn’t a factor—either they’re all the same or their race isn’t identifiable. But in the Biden-Harris campaign video, one of the climbers is Black and one is white. The Black man has to start from so much lower down, in a kind of ditch, that he can’t reach the rope that the white man grabs to scale the mountainside. This is “equality.” Then the ditch grows green grass and flowers and rises to the ground level at which the white man started. This is equity. Now the Black man can reach the rope and join the white man on the mountaintop, where they bask together in sunshine. “Equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place,” Harris says.

It isn’t clear what purpose this instructional video served, or which voters it intended to reach. The ones who cared about equity versus equality would already be voting for Biden-Harris. The video conveyed an air of self-identification, not persuasion—as if to tell progressives and other equity advocates, “We get it.” But there was slippage in the use of the word. Equity now meant not just giving people what they need to enjoy a full life, but giving them what they need to create equal outcomes between groups: “the same place.” This meaning builds on the recent turn to structural analysis of discrimination. If outcomes are unequal between groups, then structural racism or another form of oppression is the cause. If standardized tests show disparities between different groups, then the tests are inherently racist, and equity demands that they be altered or abolished.

Equity quickly assumed a central place in the Biden administration. On January 20, within hours of being inaugurated, Biden signed an executive order that committed the entire federal government to “racial equity and support for underserved communities.” The order specifically named

Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.

The order established the Equitable Data Working Group to determine whether the federal government is collecting enough data on the basis of these categories to assess barriers to equity across all government agencies. It gave the agencies a year to come up with a plan for removing any barriers. The order reflects the most current meaning of equity—equal outcomes across groups.

Previous American presidents rarely used the word equity; equality has been the common term in political speech. Biden has employed equity far more than any of his predecessors. But the word doesn’t come naturally to him, because he’s a figure from the Roosevelt-Truman era, a believer in the older idea of equality—the fair shake, not the equitable shake. “I believe this nation and this government need to change their whole approach to the issue of racial equal—equity,” Biden said on January 26. He’s made the slip more than once, though lately he’s become more comfortable using the new term and avoiding the old one.

What’s wrong with replacing equality with equity? In potentially gaining more equal outcomes, is there anything to lose?

Equity offers a direct remedy for the effects of discrimination and other forms of oppression. One recent example: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a long history of dispossessing Black farmers, and Biden’s COVID-19 bill included debt relief for farmers categorized as “disadvantaged.” This specific policy comes close to providing federal reparations to descendants of American slavery. It’s a clear case of righting a wrong and using government power for justice.

But the prospect of a straighter path to justice has a cost: It will inevitably lead to division and injustice. Shaping policies on the basis of demographic groups is bound to provoke legal challenges (the Biden administration already faces several discrimination lawsuits). These policies also create perverse consequences. Equity dissolves individual realities in collective solutions. It uses data that might have nothing to do with true need to impose equal demographic outcomes that exist in no society. Equity can direct relief money to a Japanese American restaurant owner who doesn’t need it instead of a Greek American owner who does, or drastically reduce the number of poor Asian American students at competitive schools, or close schools to all students because families chose remote learning during the pandemic at unequal rates by race. In defining and calculating fairness by ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, disability, and other categories, equity divides Americans along exactly these lines. It also gives up the possibility of democratic equality.

There’s a struggle within the Biden administration, still largely hidden, between two narratives. One is reflected in the equity executive order, the other in the agenda of Equal America. The first separates and counts; the second unites and empowers. The first sees Americans as victims of past injustices in need of redress, which implies an inferior status by group. The second sees Americans as individual citizens, all of the same status, deserving of the same respect, entitled by virtue of being American and being human to participate fully in our democratic life.