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Are we heading for royal weddings in U.S.?

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Royal wedding offers Americans vivid example of class structure of U.K.
  • He says Americans pride themselves on lack of barriers to social mobility
  • Zelizer: Recent decades have seen sharp rise in economic inequality in U.S.
  • He says U.S. should take care not to let economic inequality define the nation

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- On a recent trip to England, I found that it was impossible to avoid seeing coasters, posters, books and other paraphernalia being sold to mark the royal wedding on April 29.

As you might expect, the wedding is drawing great interest among the British. But some Americans are following this wedding closely, too. Our fascination with royalty is not much different from our national obsession with Hollywood romances and peccadilloes.

The royal wedding also offers Americans an opportunity to revel in the glamour of leaders in a way that has been largely impossible in the post-Watergate era, in which cynicism and distrust have characterized the national outlook toward Washington.

Although there was a moment when Barack and Michelle Obama seemed to bring some of the appeal of Camelot back into the White House, that moment ended quickly as the media and political opponents sank their teeth into this president.

The wedding also reminds some Americans of what America has never been. This country has never had a genuine aristocracy or an aristocratic tradition. We can thus watch the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton with a bit of a smirk.

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We must be cautious, however. During the past few decades, there has been a dangerous accretion of power by wealthy interests and a dramatic rise of inequality, akin to what the U.S. saw in the Gilded Age, that weakens the health of our democracy. Although this is far from being any kind of aristocracy, it's certainly not good.

One troubling development has been the steadily rising power of money in politics. As the cost of campaigns increased, politicians turned to private donors to fund their campaigns.

During the 1970s, Washington witnessed a massive proliferation in the number of corporate-interest groups. Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have traced how businesses organized and mobilized to counteract the power of unions -- whose influence declined significantly in the coming decades -- and in response to new federal regulations and agencies, such as OSHA.

At the same time, campaign finance reforms passed in the 1970s gradually eroded. Private money found loopholes through which to influence presidential politics and, in recent years, candidates from both parties rejected public funds so that they could raise or spend all that they want. A series of court decisions, culminating last year with the Supreme Court's Citizen United, knocked down the remaining barriers for big financial interests to pour money into the system.

Along with the rising power of business came the erosion of many progressive policies that helped to lessen economic inequality. For much of the period since 1979, Congress did not update the minimum wage. The value of the minimum wage as a tool for lessening inequality diminished as a result.

Under President George W. Bush, Congress also temporarily eliminated the estate tax, which was one of the most progressive measures that the government had enacted. Obama and the lame-duck Congress agreed to bring the estate tax back but with much a higher exemption rate that had been sought by Republicans. In general, the income tax system has become much less progressive since President Ronald Reagan launched several decades of rate cuts in 1981.

As Hacker found, there has been a gradual erosion in the economic security of the middle class. With the household income of middle-class Americans falling because of declining wages or growing medical costs, parents are having trouble paying for their kids and taking care of their own parents.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest 1% of Americans now enjoys 34% of the nation's wealth, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Indeed, according to Timothy Noah of Slate, the top 1% of the nation received more than 80% of the total increase in Americans' income between 1980 and 2005.

Much of this economic insecurity has driven the kind of populist politics that has threatened both parties and left voters profoundly unhappy. While the parties have shifted their attention toward deficit reduction and spending cuts, it is essential that the nation does not lose sight of these much more fundamental problems.

The nation's willingness to tolerate greater levels of economic inequality will mean that wealth and its attendant benefits will be transferred to narrower and narrower segments of the population, while a majority of people will be left with few opportunities to improve their conditions.

Ultimately, we need to make sure we don't allow economic inequality -- as opposed to our democratic institutions -- to define our nation. If we do, we'll all be watching royal weddings right in our own backyard.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.

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