Traditionally, class figured less in politics in America than in most other Western countries, supposedly because the United States, though more economically unequal, and rougher in tone, was more socially equal, more diverse, more democratic, and better at giving ordinary people the opportunity to rise. That’s what Alexis de Tocqueville found in the eighteen-thirties, and the argument has had staying power. It has also been wearing thin. During the five decades from 1930 to 1980, economic inequality decreased significantly, without imperilling “American exceptionalism.” So it’s especially hard to put a good face on the way inequality has soared in the decades since. Even if you think that all a good society requires is—according to the debatable conservative mantra—equal opportunity for every citizen, you ought to be a little shaken right now. Opportunity is increasingly tied to education, and educational performance is tied to income and wealth. When it comes to social mobility between generations, the United States ranks near the bottom of developed nations.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.