Edward Banfield Revisited

Daniel DiSalvo, "Edward Banfield Revisited," National Affairs, Summer: 2017.    

Many involved in the contemporary policy debate share the view that the nation is in crisis and that bold political action is needed — even if they disagree on what that action should be. Some two-thirds of the public also believe that the country is on the wrong track and that government should do something to right the ship of state.

However, even if some groups are struggling, the fact remains that a majority of Americans live more comfortably than ever before. They have better housing, better schools, better transportation, more options at the grocery store, and so on. By nearly any conceivable measure of material welfare, Americans today are living better than any group of 320 million people has ever lived anywhere in the world. And in material terms, at least, things are likely to get better for most people — even if perhaps at a slower rate than in the past.

In what sense, then, is the nation in crisis? Perhaps it has to do with social status — the extent to which certain groups feel respected and appreciated — and whether some groups are losing status relative to other groups in American society. Feeling poor or poorer would then be more important than actually being poor or becoming so. Perhaps it is a problem of ever-rising expectations: Things appear worse relative to how people think they should be. Ever-rising standards to evaluate society make it harder to feel grateful and easier to feel aggrieved. The result is what the writer Gregg Easterbrook once called “the progress paradox,” wherein things get better but people feel worse.

Such a gap between expectations and reality implies that, despite the nation’s failures in social policy, Americans have come to firmly believe that we should have social policies — that government should do something to improve material and moral conditions. The problem is that such expectations lead to demands that government do what cannot be done, which threatens democratic institutions. Obama worship and Trump’s demagoguery are the most visible signs of such corrosive attitudes.

In such an overheated situation, it is useful to revisit the work of Edward Banfield. On nearly all of the issues that comprise the contemporary policy debate — social class, race, employment, the minimum wage, education, crime, immigration, and housing — Banfield’s work still illuminates a great deal.

National Affairs