As the 2024 presidential election shapes up, one important issue — equality of opportunity — sounds very much like the 1932 campaign between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. In the throes of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover maintained that the American system of individualism coupled with equality of opportunity was not broken and need not be replaced. Franklin Roosevelt, advocating a much more aggressive role for the federal government in economic regulation and security, argued that “equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists.”
Fueled by social justice movements of the decade, the 2024 presidential campaign now revisits key questions about the doctrine of equality of opportunity. Is it still what Americans believe in? Is it enough? What does it mean? How do we advance it? What is the role of government in providing for it?
Here the candidates are still as far apart as Hoover and Roosevelt 90 years ago.
On the Democratic side, President Joe Biden has been busy expanding legal rights to greater equality, especially in transgender and racial protections. As he said in a recent statement on the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia: “Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and equality — no matter whom they love, or how they identify.” Biden has signed executive orders and promoted legislation to expand legal equality.
Vice President Kamala Harris would apparently go further. In the 2020 presidential campaign, she seemed to favor a shift from equality of opportunity to equality of outcomes, an important debate at least since the 1960s. In a campaign video on equality, Harris said “we [should] all end up at the same place,” pointing out that not all people begin from the same starting point in the race toward equal opportunity. Harris joins a growing chorus saying that the traditional American value of equality of opportunity is not enough. How government would do this is not entirely clear.
On the Republican side, candidates such as former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have called moves to expand equality — especially in transgender rights and protections — part of a “woke” agenda to be opposed. If reelected, Trump has said he would cut off funding for transgender rights and has referred to a Biden executive order on racial equity as a “Marxist concept of equity.” DeSantis is very much out front in opposing many new equality measures, with his “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida and signing a new law blocking use of pronouns, gendered facilities and so forth in schools.
These Republicans see efforts to expand legal equality as a threat to traditional American values and actively oppose them. Other Republicans — such as Nikki Haley and Mike Pence — are less strident but appear to favor a similar approach.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), preaches a more positive message about equality of opportunity, saying in his campaign announcement: “I choose freedom, hope, opportunity.” He has actively pursued the development and support of “opportunity zones” in distressed areas. He is FOR equality of opportunity — but wants to see government more active in giving a helping hand. Scott echoes Ronald Reagan’s call for an “opportunity society,” which for Reagan meant less federal taxes and regulation and more individual freedom.
Americans have long favored equality of opportunity over outcomes. But, with growing income inequality and unrest over social injustice, there is greater pressure in favor of bolder approaches, whether equality of outcomes or the vague notion of equity. By now, most agree that providing legal equality, through civil rights legislation, is appropriate. And there has long been bipartisan support for education as a government-sponsored program to create greater equality.
But after that, there is little agreement. In particular, is it the role of government to create greater equality? If so, is it appropriate to use economic tools such as higher taxes on the wealthy or perhaps a guaranteed minimum income for those in need, an experiment being carried out in several cities across the country?
When the French journalist Alexis De Tocqueville toured America in the 19th Century, he observed that America was a land of liberty but added, “what [Americans] love with a love that is eternal is equality.” We ask again, as we did in the election of 1932, what does that mean today? Perhaps the candidates and voters in 2024 will tell us.
David Davenport is a research fellow emeritus at the Hoover Institution and the coauthor of a new book with Gordon Lloyd: “Equality of Opportunity: A Century of Debate.”