“Fewer than a third of all Americans believe the state has a responsibility to reduce income disparities, compared with 82% of Italians.”

David Brooks, NYT

Frequently enough I see coffeehouse American philosophers scratching their chins and wondering to one another, “how is it that we were the first ones to embrace modern day democracy and yet we have the least progressive government of developed Western nations?”

The now-near-bleeding-heart columnist David Brooks tips his hat to sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset and argues that, perhaps, it is precisely because our country was founded on the notion of equality that it’s never made the social reforms to make it happen.

Lipset … continued to wonder, with some regret, why America never had a serious socialist movement, why America never adopted a European-style welfare state. Lipset was aware of the structural and demographic answers to such questions. For example, racially diverse nations tend to have lower levels of social support than homogeneous ones. People don’t feel as bound together when they are divided on ethnic lines and are less likely to embrace mutual support programs. You can have diversity or a big welfare state. It’s hard to have both.

But then, according to Brooks, Lipset moved away from demographics and ethnicity and focused on history to explain the difference between the political evolution of Europe and the U.S.

America never had a feudal past so nobody has a sense of social place of class-consciousness, Lipset observed. Meanwhile, Americans have inherited from their Puritan forebears a sense that they have a spiritual obligation to rise and succeed.

Let’s start with the racially diverse society argument: I don’t think you can discount it. I was recently talking to someone about an argument made by her co-worker that immigrants (specifically Mexican) undercut market salaries and take the jobs of poor blacks. Said friend made the obvious point: “do you think that blacks are going to pick strawberries in fields?”

True. But it’s also true that few Mexican immigrants pick fruit for longer than five years. Then most learn the language, move to a city, and work blue collar jobs – jobs that a decade ago were mostly occupied by urban blacks. Ethnic distrust leads to government distrust. If blacks are worried about illegal immigrants taking advantage of universal healthcare or latinos are worried about blacks taking a disproportionate slice of welfare payments or whites are worried about minorities demanding chicano studies departmentis in universities, then no one is willing to put their money in the pot and trust that we’ll all be better off for it.

Similarly, as European nations like France, Holland, and Germany become more racially diverse, you see conservative movements on the rise. Rather than “let’s make a great country” we start to hear, “let’s empower individuals to start great companies.”

But I think that Lipset’s second argument is even more significant. America never had a hierarchical, feudal society in the sense that Europe did. Our definition of class has always been much more dynamic, bolstered by the national illusion that everyone’s great-grandfather came to this country with ten cents in his pocket. Europe went from feudal society to communal nation state. America was founded on a distrust of government and a fetishization with individual accomplishment.

That truism of America’s character holds meaning for the 2008 elections: America is fed up with Bush & Co., but – like Brooks concludes – Democrats won’t be able to get away with anything left of moderation.