If our political dialogue is all about culture clash, Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe says we might as well not be talking at all.
By Alicia Potter
MARCH 30, 1998: There's discord the land of barbecues and bake sales, or so the polls say. And politicians tell of a rift in middle-class America, an ideological fracture between the flag-waving, God-fearing right and the feminist, multiculturalist left. By all accounts, middle-class Americans are deeply divided.
Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe and a research assistant spent two years interviewing 200 middle-class Americans in eight suburban communities (including Brookline and Medford) on such loaded topics as God, country, family, race, and poverty. He distills these conversations in a revelatory new book, One Nation, After All (Viking). His conclusion: the middle-class cultural war isn't ending anytime soon. Why? Because it doesn't exist.
Wolfe argues that middle-class Americans don't deserve their reputation as angry, sanctimonious, and narrow-minded. On the contrary, he finds, they're optimistic, thoughtful, hard-working, and slow to judge; they also hew much closer to the center of the political and moral spectrum than anyone seems to realize. If anything, middle-class Americans are divided within -- not among -- themselves as they strive to balance traditional and modern moralities. Wolfe even goes so far as to say they're nice.
Wolfe's interviews paint a picture of surprising temperance, an image strikingly at odds with current poll data and political rhetoric. His research uncovers no fundamentalist religious revival; no sharp antagonism toward working women, people of color, or immigrants. In fact, middle-class Americans profess to tolerate everything -- except, disturbingly, homosexuality.
From his brick-front home in suburban Wellesley, Wolfe talked with the Phoenix about what it really means to be a middle-class American and what his book implies for democracy's future.
Q: How would you characterize the middle-class mindset?
A: I think it is the exact opposite of what we were told it was in the 1950s and 1960s. When you go back and read the novels of John Updike or John Cheever, or the pop sociology of that period, they all said that people pointed the finger of blame at others, while they themselves were hypocritical. They drank too much, they had affairs, and so on.
I think that it's the exact opposite. I think that people are hard on themselves. They say, "I know what right and wrong are for me," but they're enormously reluctant to point the finger of blame at other people. We have this idea that suburban middle-class life means a life of stultifying conformity, but it's actually much more open than that.
Q: Why was it important for you to get this idea out?
A: Because I think the misdiagnosis of what was on the minds of the middle class has caused us great harm.
The Republicans, in particular, made the case that if we just got back to middle-class morality we'd discover how deeply religious people are, how committed they are to a Christian conception of good and evil, and we'd abolish secular humanism and have discipline in the schools.
For reasons I don't understand, the left agreed with this characterization of the middle class. But they said, "Yeah, we better not go back to middle-class morality, because all these terrible things will happen." And no one had actually gone out and looked at what middle-class people really believed, what was going on in their minds.
Q: Why do we see the middle class as angry and divided?
A: Certainly a big part of it comes from interest groups that have a particular cause. They want to portray the middle class as angry and divided because that helps their cause.
Sometimes I get this awful image that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition, which are ostensibly enemies, actually sit down in Washington and have lunch together. The Christian Coalition says, "We'll scare our followers by talking about the ACLU." The ACLU says, "We'll scare our followers by talking about the Christian Coalition." They feed off each other. Interest groups with single-issue agendas try to raise money by insisting how angry people are. That's their way of getting people mobilized.
So I think that's part of it. To some degree, I blame polls that say, "Do you strongly agree or do you strongly disagree?" and then force people into a category when they may actually agree in part and disagree in part. I think intellectuals contribute to this. The left wants a cultural war to exist so that they can win; the right wants a cultural war to exist so that they can win. There's a whole lot of people who want to portray the middle class as angry. But I think they middle class is very optimistic.
Q: In your book, you say middle-class Americans are uncomfortable with controversy, and also that democracy depends on controversy to advance. What does this mean for our country?
A: There are things about middle-class morality that are troublesome. I worry that the nonjudgmentalism I found -- while very nice because it means we're not fighting a bloody civil war -- has a real underside. It shows that people might not be at all interested in anybody else. You have to really be interested in someone to pass judgment on them. Real tolerance, as opposed to nonjudgmentalism, means you are willing to accept something that you fundamentally disagree with.
So long as [people are nonjudgmental], we're going to avoid real crises. We're not going to have a civil war, we're not going to have anything like you find in Northern Ireland or Bosnia. But we're also never likely to have a really great president, a leader like we had in the New Deal, for example. That's the price.
It's almost as if people understand that. Clinton gets by with what he does because people don't have any expectations of him. One consequence is that he may actually last for eight years as president, which is rare these days. On the other hand, I don't think anyone is going to say Clinton was a great president who inspired Americans. He's the perfect man for the middle-class morality; he's a man of some obvious personal ambition but extremely modest vision. His vision exactly fits the mood of the country right now, because it doesn't want a vision.
Q: You say you were actually disappointed there wasn't a cultural war going on. Why?
A: Because I'm not just a sociologist. I write for very opinionated magazines [the New Republic, the New Yorker], and I write in a very opinionated way. I clearly have my own views, and that part of me would have liked to see more engagement with political controversy.
Sometimes the reasonableness, the sensitivity, the thoughtfulness just drove me batty. Sometimes the nonjudgmentalism drove me batty. I just wanted to scream at people, "You know, isn't there something that really just makes you angry and upset?"
Q: Libertarian is a word that comes up a lot in the book. Do you think, based on the middle-class mindset, that there's the potential for libertarianism to gain strength as a political force?
A: Well, for the past 20 or 30 years, the conservatives have had a libertarian economic program -- "get government out of business" -- but when it comes to morality they want to regulate people. Whereas on the left -- you know, on issues like abortion or gay rights, liberals say, "Government, stay out! These are moral issues, these are private issues." But economically, the left wants to regulate businesses.
Most people don't think that way; they tend to be economic and moral libertarians at the same time. Some of the people I talked to who had what sounded like very left-wing views -- very pro-feminist, very pro-gay -- were also total Newt Gingrich Republicans, because they were very probusiness as well. I think the political fallout on the right will be that you'll eventually get a kind of alliance between the moral and economic libertarians on one side, and the conservatives and liberals who believe in government on the other side.
Q: You encourage people to question polls, but your own sample is very small. Why should we believe you?
A: Good question. I rely on polls a lot in the book, but I think it's not a question of believing any one thing. I think it's more of a question of adding [information]. We need to consider my survey plus something else, as opposed to one or the other.
Q: What about the fact that people tend to lie to pollsters?
A: Well, we know they sometimes do, but not that much. I think people are more likely to lie about their beliefs to someone they already know than to a stranger who's asking them questions. They're not as interested in making a certain impression when it's someone they don't know. We also have to have some faith that people are willing to say what they mean.
We used what's called a confrontational methodology. We essentially were having conversations with people in their living rooms. Unlike in traditional polling, we'd challenge them directly, almost as lawyers do in court. If they said one thing here and another thing there, we'd say, "Wait a minute, isn't that contradictory?" We'd try to delve beneath the first thing they said and determine what they really meant. The result is much more qualitative [than a typical survey].
Q: You isolated homosexuality as the one thing middle-class Americans don't tolerate. Do you think that will change?
A: I can't predict. To this day, I have no idea whether people's unwillingness to extend their tolerance and their nonjudgmentalism to homosexuality will just fade away.
I mean, there was a time only 30 years ago when people were opposed to interracial marriage, and that's faded away. Now it's considered a good thing. Maybe someday people will say there's so much divorce that any kind of marriage is good, and the opposition to gay marriage -- which is pretty strong in the polls and in my book -- will dissipate.
On the other hand, for some people I talked to, [opposition to homosexuality] was as profound a conviction as you could have. God said, "Be fruitful and multiply." They used words like abomination. They really hate this. I can't tell which way it's going to go. It could go either way.
Q: What surprised you most in your research?
A: I think the degree of religious tolerance. For a long time we really were a Christian country, and the understanding was that religion played a role as being the source of moral certainty. Any society needs a common morality, and the idea was that Christianity provided that common morality.
Christianity's not the sole religion anymore, yet morality still exists. I think we've seen that religion is only one source of morality, that there are others as well. This is an interesting piece of news because it means that we do live together with great religious diversity, and that's really quite remarkable. Most countries haven't figured out how to do that.
Q: What surprised you the most when you surveyed Brookline and Medford?
A: I guess what surprised me the most was that Boston wasn't that different from other parts of the country. There were one or two issues where Bostonians stood out -- they're much more liberal on immigration policies and willing to accept immigrants, and more tolerant of homosexuality, than people elsewhere in the country. But by and large, there's no huge difference between the Boston suburbs, the Tulsa suburbs, the Atlanta suburbs, the Southern California suburbs.
Q: What about the relationship between class and race? At one point, you say that class makes more difference than race in the middle-class suburbs.
A: I, of course, was looking only at middle-class people, but what I discovered is that black middle-class people and white middle-class people have more in common as middle-class people than they have divisions as black and white. They do have divisions as black and white, but "middle class" is a very broad concept that can override race. If I were looking at all segments of American society, I'm sure I'd find that people are really divided by class, that there's a gap between rich and poor.
Q: How is the attitude of the middle class affecting race relations?
A: I think it's just important to understand that when people move to the suburbs, it's not necessarily because they're fleeing black people who live in the cities. The people who were most likely to see themselves as fleeing from the problems of the cities were African-Americans, who were quite honest about wanting to get away from the crime and the violence.
If we could stop talking about race in terms of left and right, stop saying that all people on the left are well-intentioned and all people on the right are racist, we'd be much more able to address our racial problems. There are people of good will and ill will on both sides.
Q: What do you see as the future of the middle class?
A: Your guess is as good as mine. I have a much better sense of where it's not going. It's not the doom-and-gloom scenario -- that downsizing and globalization are just going to cause some awful return to social Darwinism. People are too sensible for that. I think the reasonableness of middle-class America is very important to emphasize. So I don't think there's going to be a crisis of the middle class. I think the middle-class lifestyle and values are pretty solidly entrenched. I think the real question is whether anything positive can be built upon that.
Q: What would you want politicians to take away from your work?
A: I really don't make any policy recommendations in the book. I wanted it to be about politics but without discussing politics explicitly -- sort of what I call "above politics" or "below politics." But I do want politicians to be aware that people are turned off by the wealth in politics. It violates a middle-class ideal.
Q: What social class do you consider yourself?
A: I'm middle-class. Two careers, three children. If being middle-class means having a certain amount of financial independence, but not so much that you can afford luxuries, then I'm middle-class.
Q: You've said the cultural war is really being waged among intellectuals. That certainly gives you an interesting perspective as a middle-class citizen and an intellectual. What is that like for you?
A: It's almost like I lead two lives. I come back to Wellesley and people don't know me as the writer for the New Republic; they know me as the father of these three children, or someone who is at a school event. I guess that provides a kind of balance in my own life. I study middle-class morality in part because I try to practice it myself.
Alicia Potter is a freelance writer living in Boston.
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