One zombie trope among many Americans, especially conservative Americans, is that European societies are still stuck in yesterday's class conflicts, while America, having no class system (no really, some of them actually say this with a straight face) lets even the most modest citizen rise to the top. The latest version of comes in a speech from a prominent Republican lawmaker, Paul Ryan:
Telling Americans they are stuck in their current station in life, that they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and that government’s role is to help them cope with it — well, that’s not who we are. That’s not what we do.
Our Founding Fathers rejected this mentality. In societies marked by class structure, an elite class made up of rich and powerful patrons supplies the needs of a large client underclass that toils, but cannot own. The unfairness of closed societies is the kindling for class warfare, where the interests of “capital” and “labor” are perpetually in conflict. What one class wins, the other loses.
The legacy of this tradition can still be seen in Europe today: Top-heavy welfare states have replaced the traditional aristocracies, and masses of the long-term unemployed are locked into the new lower class. …
Whether we are a nation that still believes in equality of opportunity, or whether we are moving away from that, and towards an insistence on equality of outcome.
Jonathan Chait dismantles the entire speech here, in a blog post that probably goes too deep into the weeds for most non-American readers. Here's where he takes on Ryan's rose-colored vision of American opportunity:
Unfortunately, Ryan’s understanding of reality is a complete inversion of actual reality. “Equality of opportunity” bears no relation to the reality of the American economy or any economy. Parents can benefit their children by giving them money, better schools, better home environments, tutoring, camp, and other advantages. Opportunity is overwhelmingly unequal. One result is that rich kids perform far better in school than poor kids. But that is not the only result. Poor kids who beat the odds and get high test scores are less likely to complete college than rich kids with middling or even low test scores. Poor kids who beat those odds and graduate from college are still less likely to grow up to be rich than rich kids who did not graduate from college. I'm not sure if there's a perfect solution, but pretty sure Ryan's plan to slash [subsidized student loans] is not going to help.
Ryan’s decision to cite Europe as a place where people can’t move beyond their birth station is especially unfortunate. In fact, social mobility in Europe is higher than in the United States, a fact even [right-winger] Rick Santorum has acknowledged.
There's one nugget of truth in what Ryan says, in that there's a bit less open class snobbery in the United States than in Europe. But in terms of practical, real-world outcomes, European societies offer more class mobility than the United States. One problem with American political culture is that a stubborn minority of citizens won't admit this fact, or even the existence of America's class system.