In general, the things in my list fall into two categories: technological advances that make life easier, tastier, more entertaining, healthier, longer; and socio-political changes that have made the country a more tolerant, inclusive place. Over the past generation, America has opened previously inaccessible avenues to previously excluded groups, although in some cases the obstacles remain formidable, and in others (immigrant farm labourers, for example) there has hardly been any change at all. More Americans than ever before are free to win elective office or gain admission to a good college or be hired by a good company or simply be themselves in public. And they have more freedom to choose among telephones, TV shows, toothpastes, reading matter, news outlets, and nearly every other consumer item you can think of.

The bottom line in all these improvements is freedom. In America, that’s half the game. The other half is equality. Not equality of result–no successful political tendency or President in this country, not even F.D.R.’s New Deal, has promised that. As Richard Hofstadter shows in his great 1948 book, “The American Political Tradition,” the deal in this country has always been equal opportunity. That was Jefferson’s meaning when he inscribed in the annals of our civic religion the conviction that “all men are created equal.” Even a populist like Andrew Jackson demanded only “the classic bourgeois ideal, equality before the law, the restriction of government to equal protection of its citizens.” But when the results are distributed as unequally as they are at this moment, when the gap between promise and reality grows so wide, when elites can fail repeatedly and never lose their perches of privilege while ordinary people can never work their way out of debt, equal opportunity becomes a dream.

We measure inequality in numbers — quintiles, average and median incomes, percentages of national wealth, unemployment statistics, economic growth rates–but the damage it is doing to our national life today defies quantification. It is killing many Americans’ belief in the democratic promise – their faith that the game is fair, that everyone has a chance. That’s where things have unquestionably deteriorated over the past generation. The game seems rigged–and if it is, following the rules is for suckers.

We usually think of greater inclusiveness as a blow struck for equality. But in our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are unrelated. The fortunes of middle-class Americans have declined while prospects for many women and minorities have risen. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have improved together–this is what appeared to be happening in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Since then, many women and minorities have done better than in any previous generations, but many others in both groups have seen their lives and communities squeezed by the economic contractions of the past generation. Like almost everything else, the new inclusiveness divides the country into winners and losers. It’s been good for those with the education, talent, and luck to benefit from it; for others–in urban cores like Youngstown, Ohio; rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina; and the exurban slums outside Tampa–inclusiveness remains mostly theoretical. It gives an idea of equality, which makes the reality of inequality even more painful.

In “The Unwinding,” which looks at the past generation of American life, there are many stories of institutional corrosion. Politics turns bitterly divisive, government agencies founder, corporations abandon any sign of loyalty or vision beyond their quarterly earnings, great media organizations lose their financial foundation and their compass, the dream of home ownership turns into a Ponzi scheme. But there are also life stories of ordinary Americans–Dean Price, Tammy Thomas, Jeff Connaughton, Michael Van Sickler, Nelini Stamp, and others–who continue to chase their version of the American dream. They remain invested in it, whether or not it remains invested in them. They hold off any temptation to resign myself to the narrative of decline. It’s impossible to have spent the past several years travelling the country and talking to people like these without feeling hope.

 Courtesy New Yorker.