Though Americans are deeply divided in their politics, they still generally share one transcendent political value. It is the distinctly American notion that the widespread ownership of property—particularly homes, small businesses, and financial savings—benefits individuals and the nation. This core American belief descends from a political tradition in American life that is older than the Republic itself. It is the Yeoman ideal—which holds that small-scale property ownership confers special dignity and autonomy to the individual, while also improving civic participation and serving as a check on monopoly capital.
From Jeffersonian farmer to unionized craft tradesman to internet entrepreneur, the values of the yeoman have given shape to American politics. Challenged by the issue of slavery and later by the spread of mass production and consumerism, it is a tradition that nearly flickered out among both Republicans and Democrats in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but that has been gaining new relevancy and urgency ever since.
The reasons include the declining market power of wage earners in a global economy and the unraveling of employersponsored health and pension systems—trends that increase the importance of asset ownership and economic self-sufficiency. They also include new technologies and shifts in consumer preferences that promise to favor small producers and holders of capital in the future if enabled by appropriate public policies.
Because of the long hold and widespread appeal of the yeoman ideal on the American political imagination, a politics that pays honor to this tradition has the potential to bridge the country’s cultural divides while also advancing progressive policy agendas, ranging from health care, “open access” wireless communication and baby bonds, to antitrust and farm policy.