Lewis Powell wanted executives selling tires or aspirin to take on an additional job: selling capitalism itself. Today, the disparate strands of the progressive movement must learn the same lesson, advocating not just for people but for the very idea of the people. Ours is the world’s greatest experiment in democracy: to create one, mutually supporting community of interest out of ancestral strangers—geographically distant, multi-origin, multi-ethnic, multiracial. Our inability to do that has been the Achilles’ heel of liberalism. It’s why we are not yet the 99 percent.
Americans will not rise to the liberal call that “we are all in it together”—and we never have—if we don’t believe that we are part of the same human family. This belief must be deep, at the level of our rhythmic response to music, of our emotional response to images. Unfortunately, it’s at exactly that level where our biases persist—and are going increasingly unchecked by a political discourse enthralled with the fallacy that we can be color-blind.
Studies of unconscious bias reveal that despite disavowals of racism, people unconsciously link negative words to faces of those at the bottom of our social hierarchy—particularly darker-skinned people—and positive words to those at the top. This mistrust reveals itself in our economy, as white job-seekers with criminal records receive callbacks at higher rates than black candidates without them, and as brokers steer Latino families with prime credit scores into subprime loans nonetheless. But it also reveals itself in our politics; we lost the postwar social contract as soon as women and people of color could be signatories to it. Of course, the cruel irony is that white Americans have suffered tremendously under post-contract inequality. That’s what happens when we continue to choose hierarchy over solidarity; racial hierarchy built the scaffolding, but now erected, it traps millions of us in the lower rungs.