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Color Me Middle

If there’s one thing that’s certain about us Americans, runs the national myth, it’s that we’re a democratic bunch. We’re almost universally middle class. Oh, sure, there are some smelly vagabonds wandering the streets of our big cities, a few illiterate hillbillies in Tennessee hollers, and Bill Gates, but otherwise, we’re all just ordinary normal middle-class folks.

Recently, though, doubts have crept in, as the economy has thinned out the middle class, separating us once again into a nation of rich and poor. Should we be worried? Not according to sociologist Alan Wolfe, who has arrived on the scene just in time to assure us that, as the title of his book puts it, we are One Nation, After All. (And get a load of the book’s subtitle: What Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, The Right, The Left and Each Other, Viking Press, hardcover, $24.95). Wolfe has studied the middle-class American mind, and—guess what?—he’s found it largely free of alienation, status anxiety, and bigotry. His Americans are tolerant (except for when they have to think about these queers), open-hearted (except toward the wrong kind of immigrants), and ceaselessly striving. They also seem to be deeply confused, utterly depoliticized, and convinced of contradictory things that neither they nor Wolfe bother to investigate, let alone resolve.

Maybe the best comment on Wolfe’s awful book came from a waitress who asked me what I was reading as she brought me a beer. I showed the cover to her, with its subtitle, “What middle class Americans think about.…” She asked if it was any good. No, I answered, it’s a boring, mushy, terrible book. “Well,” she explained, “that’s because we don’t think anything interesting.”

Wolfe makes his biggest blunder right on the first page. “According to the General Social Survey,” he writes, “at no time between 1972 and 1994 did more than 10 percent of the American population classify themselves as either lower class or upper class” (yes, emphasis in the original). That means, according to Wolfe’s specious reasoning, that the remaining 90 percent would call themselves “middle class.” In fact, they wouldn’t. When given the choice, a majority of the American population has consistently identified itself as “working class.”

Religion is thought to be marvelous as long as it’s not “political”.

But Wolfe does not intend to give them that choice. He is a man on a mission—to probe the “middle-class” mind and then provide his affluent readers 359 pages worth of nice reassurance about themselves. To take the measure of middle-class thought, Wolfe and his “Middle Class Morality Project” first chose eight suburbs in different parts of the country, strangely but intentionally skewing their choices to favor affluent, conservative, religious places (the book begins with a heartwarming homage to each charming burg). From the population of those suburbs Wolfe and Co. then chose a number of individuals (again skewing their sample toward the affluent), questioned them about their thoughts on life, and then “coded” their responses numerically. And since, as everyone knows, America is a suburban nation, the charts, graphs, and banal prose that result become what “we” think.

This curious methodology virtually determines the book’s conclusions. It also seems to have determined the book’s enthusiastic reception by mainstream publications and politicos, all of them dazzled by the prospect of a hardy consensus thriving all this time out there in suburbia. The source of Wolfe’s magic touch seems to be his ability to portray the average American as a reflection of the opinion-making class itself: prosperous, self-satisfied, and a little weary of conflict. Wolfe’s “findings” about the middle class—that it shuns divisiveness, values consensus, and is well-meaning in virtually everything it says and does—are flattering in the extreme. The idea of class itself is the primary victim: Class doesn’t shape or constrain us, it doesn’t determine our values or world views, it doesn’t divide us against each other. In the great middle, among the 90 percent, moral issues matter more than political ones, individual interests eclipse collective ones.

For Wolfe’s middle, in fact, politics seems to be something of a cuss word. Religion is thought to be marvelous as long as it’s not “political”; ditto multicultural education and patriotism, even. Wolfe interprets this attitude as “tolerant,” but what he means is “indecisive.” Neither religion nor culture seems to make any demands on these Americans, As Wolfe helpfully writes: “Ambivalence—call it confusion if you want to—can be described as the default position for the American middle class; everything else being equal, people simply cannot make up their minds.”

Wolfe’s middle class just isn’t interested in the big questions. Their religion is tepid; their tolerance contentless; and their taste in virtues is decidedly “modest,” personal, “writ small.” The activating principle seems to be an abiding horror of disagreement “Virtue, like religion, cannot be equated with politics,” Wolfe writes, “for that would lead to division and discord.”

It’s amazing how much Wolfe’s middle triumphant sounds like the USSR in its heyday, post-Gulag and pre-Gorby. Here’s Henri Lefebvre’s description of the moral code of Homo sovieticus from the early sixties:

This code can be summed up in a few words: love of work (and work well done, fully productive in the interests of socialist society), love of family, love of the socialist fatherland. A moral code like this holds the essential answer to every human problem, and its principles proclaim that all such problems have been resolved. One virtue it values above all others: being a ‘decent’ sort of person, in the way that the good husband, the good father, the good workman, the good citizen are ‘decent sorts of people….’

Change “socialist” to “American,” and you’ve pretty much got it.

Technically speaking, Wolfe’s “Middle Class Morality Project” is a joke: it’s hard to imagine this passing review at a scholarly journal. But Wolfe is obviously more interested in ideological celebration than telling the truth. “In a nutshell,” Wolfe asserts, “what middle-class Americans find distinctive about America is that it enables them to be middle class. Unlike India or Japan, the very rich and the very poor are smaller classes here, and opportunity enables those with the desire and the capacity to better their lot in life.” But even this is wrong. India is poor in absolute terms, but, according to World Bank figures, the country’s distribution of income isn’t all that different from the United States. And of all the First World countries, the United States has the most polarized distribution of income, the smallest middle class (measured relative to average incomes), an average level of general mobility, and a terrible record on upward mobility out of the income basement. Statistically speaking, the U.S. is one of the most class-divided societies on earth.

Unless you confront the existence of the working class, you aren’t talking about middle America

Class, of course, is the greatest and most divisive bogeyman of all for Wolfe’s “middle class.” It cannot be discussed, and Wolfe dutifully skews his study so that it need not be. Still, class hasn’t completely faded from the American consciousness. In 1949, Richard Center asked a sample of Americans to pace themselves in one of four classes—middle, lower, working, or upper. Just over half—51 percent—identified themselves as working class. In 1996, the General Social Survey (GSS), a near-yearly Inventory of what Americans own, think, and feel, found, after decades of highly publicized farewells to the working class, 45 percent still called themselves by that name. A New York Times poll that year found that 47 percent identified themselves as working class, 40 percent as middle class, 8 percent as lower class, and 3 percent as upper class. Two ABC polls that year asking people to place themselves in either of two classes found 55 percent said working class, while 44 percent said middle class.

In other words, unless you confront the existence of the working class, you aren’t talking about middle America. But the myth of universal affluence persists nonetheless. In their very useful book The American Perception of Class, Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Weber Cannon show that the tendency to understand the upper reaches of the working class as part of a broad, prosperous, and generally content middle class is itself a reliable class marker, an intellectual habit of the affluent, who like to fancy themselves average people. People of more modest means, on the other hand, tend to divide the world between the upper class and everyone else.

Though the disappearance of class is an old American story, we’re in a particularly blind moment these days, with all sorts of silly talk about the democratization of ownership spawned by the bull market. But consider this passage, the most interesting statistic in Wolfe’s narcotic book: “In 1939, while America was experiencing a Great Depression right out of Karl Marx’s playbook, 25 percent of the American people believed that the interests of employers and employees were opposed, while 56 percent believed they were basically the same. By 1994, when unions and class consciousness were in steep decline, the percentage of these who believed that employers and employees had opposite interests had increased to 45 percent, while these who thought they were the same had decreased to 40 percent.” Wolfe brings up the point only to drop it; he’s too busy hauling loads of reassurance to and from the land of cul-de-sacs and gated communities. But it gets at the heart of what he is doing and why. If so many people continue to believe our society is structured around conflict, not consensus, we must be close to crisis indeed. Hence the urgency of such bland, comforting, scholarly-sounding niceness: Paradise really is ours.