June 7, 1998
Good news rarely makes headlines. Vance Packard, David Riesman, Christopher Lasch, and many other social critics have delivered the bad news about the American character: we are conformists, narcissists, overgrown children. All true, but not the whole truth. There is a benign aura surrounding the idea of American-ness that even the most hard-hitting critiques have not dissipated. No less than its shortcomings, the perennial appeal of the American national character needs to be explained. This new book by sociologist Alan Wolfe takes a long stride in that direction.
One Nation, After All is a portrait, partly in numbers but mostly in Wolfe’s words and their own, of middle Americans engaged in moral reflection. Wolfe, a professor at Boston University, and his research assistant Maria Poarch interviewed two hundred suburbanites in eight communities: two suburbs each of Boston, Atlanta, Tulsa, and San Diego. There were questionnaires, preceded by a lengthy conversation with each respondent, about religion, family, community, work, sex, race, and immigration. Wolfe introduces each topic, reports the opinions of his sample, and comments on the significance of what he’s heard. The resulting weave of narrative, data, and interpretation is seamless and fascinating.
It turns out that, with few exceptions, the prevailing stereotypes about middle Americans are true. Wolfe’s suburbanites may be, on a longer view, conformists and narcissists; but up close they are pragmatic, self-reliant, tolerant, easygoing, openhanded, skeptical, and hardworking. They mind their own business, insist on personal responsibility, are slow to judge others or to blow their own horn, dislike extremes of rhetoric or behavior, cherish their independence, and are usually glad to help neighbors and ready to give newcomers a fair chance. The ethos of the 1950s sitcom (and, for that matter, of the 1850s frontier town) survives in contemporary middle America.
Not, of course, without modifications. The sexual revolution, the civil-rights movement, the rise of religious politics, the Vietnam war, and the advent of the global economy -- all within the space of a few decades -- have placed traditional middle-class attitudes under severe stress. But those attitudes persist: no longer rock-solid, perhaps; but, in Wolfe’s words, “more pluralistic, accommodating ... and expansive.”
Reports of a culture war raging across middle America have been, it appears, greatly exaggerated. Wolfe’s interviewees almost instinctively seek the middle ground. A large majority (73 percent) call themselves believers, but even larger majorities agree that “there are many different religious truths and we ought to be tolerant of all of them” (83 percent) and that “there is such a thing as being too religious” (80 percent). A majority (60 percent) oppose more restrictive immigration policies, but an even larger majority (80 percent) oppose bilingualism in the schools. Sixty-five percent believe that the problems of America’s inner cities are largely due to a “lack of personal responsibility,” but even more (82 percent) favor continuing welfare in some form. Racial preference in hiring and college admissions is unpopular with everyone: blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians. So is teaching respect for homosexuality in the classroom.
The meaning of these figures lies behind them, of course, in the distinctions middle Americans make and in what they take for granted. Religion, for example, is as popular as ever, but dogma and hierarchy are not. “Virtue” means not heroism but everyday decency. “Values” are not absolute but provisional. Poverty that results from incapacity or misfortune deserves relief; poverty that results from laziness or self-indulgence does not. Immigrants are welcome, provided they can fend for themselves -- which includes learning English. Racial and sexual discrimination are unacceptable, but reverse discrimination is not the answer. It is harder than ever to raise children today, nearly 90 percent agree; but virtually no one blames mothers for working. Even homosexuality, the apparent exception to middle Americans’ tolerance, elicits a mixed judgment: unwillingness to condone but reluctance to condemn. “I think America wants to be in the middle more than anything,” exclaims one respondent, deploring the artificial polarization generated by opinion polls. “I hate big blocks of judgment,” growls another.
Wolfe captures very well the decent balance middle Americans strive for: in his chapter titles and section headings -- “Quiet Faith,” Mature Patriotism,” “Ordinary Duties,” “Modest Virtues,” “Morality Writ Small,” “The Reasonable Majority”; and in passages like this:
Above all moderate in their outlook on the world, they believe in the importance of leading a virtuous life but are reluctant to impose values they understand as virtuous for themselves on others; strong believers in morality, they do not want to be considered moralists.
It is not that people are skeptical of the old virtues; they do not share the postmodernist hermeneutics of suspicion. Instead, they hold such truths to be sacred, but not so sacred that they should be inflexible. Rules are not made to be broken, for down that path lies anarchy. But they are made to bent, for down that path lies modernity.
As Wolfe acknowledges, middle-class morality is far from wholly admirable. He remarks trenchantly on the passivity and sentimentality -- the flabbiness -- of middle America’s moral outlook and allows, quite justifiably, that “a little Kant might be good for their souls.” Some readers may feel that a little Marx would do no harm, either -- or even a dollop of Adam Smith, who also exhorted his readers to keep a sharp eye on the ruling class. Middle-class Americans are, on the whole, generous, trusting, and optimistic. They are not, by and large, cynical, suspicious, or resentful. These are immensely attractive qualities. Unfortunately, those qualities seem to be compatible with (perhaps even, in part, attributable to?) a certain gullibility. Again and again in recent history, the middle class has been suckered. It wrote the military-industrial complex a blank check throughout the Cold War. It supported the Reagan tax cuts, which overwhelmingly benefited upper-income taxpayers. It opposed automatic withholding on interest income, one of the most sensible tax reforms ever proposed. It appears indifferent to efforts to reform the sharply regressive payroll tax. It bought the flimsiest of arguments against urgently-needed health-care reforms. By turning increasingly to television rather than newspapers (much less books) for information about current events, it has collaborated in the transformation of political debate into public-relations posturing. And so on. It’s enough to make one wish at times that the middle class were less “reasonable” and more rational.
One also wishes they were more literate. Wolfe’s interlocutors continually skirt banality. From the first page to the last, there is scarcely a lyrical, witty, graceful, sonorous, pithy, graphic, colorful, salty, rhythmic, lilting, or otherwise memorable phrase in the book, at least from a respondent’s mouth. There is not a single vivid metaphor in these pages, not a single striking aphorism, not a single apt literary or historical or even Biblical allusion. There is no geographic or ethnic variety in their speech. It is earnest, decent, commonsensical, unremittingly trite, and unrelievedly dull. What the middle class has to say is reassuring, but the bland and homogeneous voice in which it speaks is cause for alarm.
“Few of our respondents were as well read as Chad Noone [Wolfe uses invented names throughout] of Brookline,” who told Wolfe and his research assistant:
Every book like the Bible has got a certain set of morals, you know, and like in a less religious tone. ... Philosophers, they set up a scale of moral law -- I forget his name but whatever, the guy that tried to define morality as a sense of obligation ... Immanuel Kant, something like that. ... You could bring in Gandhi and all that, I think would be an excellent example.
Most of their respondents were, alas, nearly as inarticulate.
It is not merely a matter of colloquial style. Wide and deep cultural literacy, as E.D. Hirsch argued persuasively, is prerequisite to democratic politics; a people’s verbal or historical imagination cannot atrophy without some coarsening or enfeeblement of its moral imagination. “Most Americans,” Wolfe writes, “know at least a few stories from the Bible, have some sense of the Constitution’s basic principles, remember stories read to them as children, have become familiar with other stories as they bring up their own children, and understand such crucial episodes in American history as the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II and the struggle against totalitarianism, and the civil-rights movement. From all these sources, they distill their moral principles.” Exactly. But while Wolfe sees the moral culture of the middle class as admirably “eclectic,” a better description, based on the conversations he recounts, might be “threadbare.” And the next generation, in this respect, hardly bears thinking about. Immersed from infancy in a culture of consumption; in thrall to flickering screens at home, school, and work; buffeted by the constant background roar of ads hawking speed, glitter, and cool; numbed by a thousand televised homicides before adolescence: how much attention can they spare for the Bible, the Constitution, or the Civil War? And “distill” is probably too active a word to describe how they’ll acquire whatever moral principles they end up with. “Default” is more like it.
Wolfe himself, as researcher, narrator, and commentator, is hard to fault -- but not impossible. There is a near-reflexive centrism about One Nation, After All that occasionally provoked this particular pointy-head. “Intellectuals and ideologues” of the right and left come in for equal-opportunity cuffing. But is that fair? The right has, after all, been eating the left’s lunch these last twenty years. Reaganism decisively vanquished -- in fact, massacred -- McGovernism. Both parties have moved rightward: the Republicans in search of utopia, the Democrats in search of campaign contributions. “The parties are more partisan than ever,” Wolfe complains, “and the leadership more dedicated to scoring ideological points than to governing the country.” Wolfe concedes that this stricture applies “in particular” to the Republicans. In fact, it applies only to the Republicans. The Democrats have been in flight from ideology for at least two decades. Think of the Democratic standard-bearers in the fourth quarter of this century: Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Hart, Clinton, Gore, Gephardt. There is not a spark of ideological passion in a single one of these men. They have been interested in nothing but “governing the country.” Who are Newt Gingrich’s or Pat Robertson’s or Steve Forbes’s or Ralph Reed’s or Pat Buchanan’s ideological opposite numbers? Whoever they are, they do not occupy positions of influence in or anywhere near the Democratic Party.
Wolfe’s evenhandedness, usually admirable, is occasionally exasperating. One the one hand, “conservative intellectuals have a particularly hard time dealing with the fact that the libertarianism they appreciate in the economic realm has consequences they perceive as pernicious in the moral realm.” On the other hand, “if the left wants to be the party of moral libertarianism, it will have to dismiss its long-standing desire to plan and regulate the economy. If ... private actions in the economy have implications for everyone else so important that we have a moral stake in their regulation, [then] private actions in the realm of sexuality and identity are also available to moral scrutiny by the public at large.” Very neat. But again, not quite fair. The private economic actions the left wants to regulate include plant closings, industrial waste disposal, currency speculation, strip mining, clear-cutting, false advertising, hazardous workplaces, etc. The private sexual/identity actions the right wants to regulate include consensual sodomy, reading or viewing pornography, smoking marijuana, terminating a pregnancy, etc. Can these two classes of action really be said to have remotely comparable “implications for everyone else”? Of course not.
Wolfe does, however, conclude on exactly the right note. A chastened leftist, he still cares about economic equality and recognizes that the American middle class, in its characteristically modest and ambivalent way, does too. But not many other leftists seem to recognize this. “One of the reasons the left has had trouble sinking deep roots into American culture,” Wolfe observes, “is that it has persistently denied the [middle-class] moral ideal of one nation.” As a result, “progressives” have overlooked their best hope for progress. “By combining traditional ideals with modern realities, even if in ways discordant to intellectuals and ideologues, middle-class morality offers the best formula for making the United States the one nation economically it already is morally.”