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  • How're We Doing?Reflections on Moral Progress in America
  • Joshua Cohen (bio) and Joel Rogers* (bio)

We were born in 1951/1952, grew up in the suburban northeast during the great post-war boom, and entered Yale College in 1969/1970. This was the Yale of Kingman Brewster and Inky Clark, '57, who moved admissions past the prep schools, opened the university to women in 1969, and found a larger place for African Americans, as well as Jews and Catholics.

This more democratic Yale was part of a more confidently democratic country. We were born into a WASP-dominated America, with open racial apartheid, vast differences in the status of men and women, rigid sexual expectations, and unembarrassed class differences. Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma (1944) underscored the tension between American democratic ideals and violent, legally-imposed racial subordination. But the stark conflicts between fact and norm were hardly confined to race.

By the time we came of age, the country was no longer the world of our fathers. The civil rights movement had ended legally-imposed racial apartheid, the women's movement had placed the system of gender inequality under sharp and sustained attack, Stonewall (1969) had just announced the opening of a long-term struggle against a dominant heterosexism, and the country's much greater prosperity was more widely shared.

We count this as remarkable moral progress, and that is how it felt as we lived through it. It was as if a powerful moral sensibility had been unlocked, and moved with commanding power against a whole range of longstanding hierarchies and exclusions. As Martin Luther King had often warned, progress did not "roll in on wheels of inevitably." It came through intense political struggle, animated by moral-political conviction, and even claiming ultimate sacrifice—from Medgar Evers; Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Rosamond Robertson and Addie Mae Collins; Michael Schwerner, James Cheney, and Andrew Goodman; and then King himself. Still, there was powerful resonance in King's hopeful accompanying assertion—echoing the abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker—that the arc of the moral universe, while surely long, bends towards justice.

Of course there was still great economic inequality, but prosperity was an escalator, moving everyone up, and inequality itself was less extreme. There was a shameful war to end, but a large movement to end it. And while we all understood the world of difference between political principle and political practice, we also witnessed the powerful stirrings to fulfill the promise of large political principles. The demonstrated success of public engagement—of the power of politics to achieve aims well beyond the reach of separate episodes of individual decency—gave confidence and a will to do more. Indeed, with sufficient time and work, and enough debate, engagement, and organizing, almost anything seemed politically possible.

The world feels different now. To be sure, many of the gains in tolerance and inclusion achieved during the earlier period have deepened. In these respects, today's America is a vastly more decent place than the one we were born into: as we write this essay, an African-American man is competing with a woman for the Democratic presidential nomination. But our democracy is not in good shape, and its troubles prompt concerns about the future. A decently functioning democracy provides a favorable setting for moral progress. It is of particular importance now, as we confront a range of problems—the collapse of the employer-based welfare state at home, global poverty and destitution, potential environmental catastrophe, and non-state terror—that we demand more honest, informed, and focused political argument and a more engaged citizenry than are now characteristic of our democracy.

Moral Progress

At Gettysburg, Lincoln said there that the country was conceived in an idea—liberty—and dedicated to a proposition—that we are all moral equals. The country's promise, expressed in the Declaration and very imperfectly realized in the Constitution, was to be an association of free and equal persons. We treat this founding ideal as a basis for assessing moral progress, not because it is this nation's founding ideal—as if justice consisted in fidelity, and moral progress in fulfilling a national promise...


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