The Muddled Middle

The Muddled Middle

The Muddled Middle

Reading between the lines.
March 11 1998 3:30 AM

The Muddled Middle

Alan Wolfe's One Nation, After All.

One Nation, After All: How the Middle Class Really Think About God, Country, and Family
By Alan Wolfe
Viking Press; 384 pages; $24.95

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The right and the left have been quarreling about the character of the American middle class for at least three decades now. In the conservatives' populist version, the common-sense morals of Middle Americans are under attack by libertine elites and a decadent media. The left conjures up a heartland full of racists, misogynists, and religious maniacs. Both pit a morally hidebound middle against a culturally permissive overclass.

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But neither of these overwrought images of fierce division captures today's more complex reality. The truth of the matter is that the liberals have won the culture wars. Maybe not as thoroughly as they would have liked and maybe with much of the looniness removed, but they won them, and we are a more tolerant, egalitarian, and unified nation because of it.

It is the prime virtue of Alan Wolfe's new book, One Nation, After All, that it grasps the contours of what he calls this "mature" middle class. Wolfe, a professor of sociology at Boston University, and his assistant, Maria Poarch, conducted interviews with 25 people in each of eight cities. The locations ranged from Rancho Bernardo, a gated retirement community in California; to Medford, Mass., home to police officers and firemen; to Broken Arrow, Okla., on the buckle of the Bible Belt. What intrigues Wolfe is not the regional peculiarities of these places but the overlap among them. The blacks of Dekalb County, Ga., turn out to have much in common with the Jews of Brookline, Mass.; Newt Gingrich's constituents in Cobb County, Ga., bear a basic resemblance to the Latinos and Asians of Eastlake, Calif. Hence, one nation. (The "after all" that completes the title is wry, not just as in "surprise, surprise" but also "after all the cultural upheavals of the last decades.")

These suburbanites, Wolfe finds, are wary of both right-wing preachers and bleeding-heart liberals. They "long for a sensible center and distrust ideological thinking." They're hardly heroic in their virtues; there's none of the grandeur of, say, the Protestant Ethic here. But neither is there much of the demonic. There's no wife-swapping or anti-Semitism.

Their morality might be described as nonjudgmental pragmatism. Wolfe finds them using few words such as "sin," "moral rot," "decay," or "Satan." Middle-class Americans don't deem people of other faiths as wanting or immoral. They're "reluctant to pass judgment on how other people act and think." They don't hanker for the old family order or want to put women back in ancient strictures, but neither do they endorse the left's "anything goes" morality. Wolfe describes these Middle Americans with the term "ambivalent," which I don't think is quite right, since it suggests they're unsure of their own views. Rather, I'd call them syncretists, who draw on the values of both moral obligation and modern self-expression. They wish to preserve the freedoms brought by women working, sexual enlightenment, and feminism, even as they also worry about the fragility of family life and the dangers their children face.

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The same mix is evident on public policy issues such as race, welfare, and immigration. Wolfe's interviewees draw sharp lines between the deserving and undeserving poor. When they think about riven families and social pathology in the inner city, they generally blame "people's lack of personal responsibility." But such sentiments aren't necessarily racist. Wolfe's suburbanites have sympathy for unwed ghetto mothers, believe in giving people a second chance, and know that the safety net is a moral, not just a practical, necessity. And if they don't like feeling swamped by immigrants or people who want Spanish placed on a par with English, they have come to value different ethnic and racial traditions--so long as those traditions don't trump one's identity as an American.

At almost every turn, Wolfe affirms a sensibility of the serene. The concepts he invokes--"quiet faith," "mature patriotism," "ordinary duties," "morality writ small," "soft multiculturalism"--proclaim a preference (both his and his subjects') for the middle way. Against hotter images of a churning id of rabid racism or dangerously aggrieved Middle Americans, he restores to the middle its claims of reason and morality. We do not have to fear them.

Wolfe's approach has its limitations. His interviews tend to focus on the more educated, affluent segments of the middle class, segments that may more easily slip into genteel euphemisms and present themselves as "enlightened." And the brevity of the sessions--90 minutes to 120 minutes to cover a lot of ground--can permit the breathless clutter of quick responses to keep at bay deeper and darker sentiments. Moreover, by contrasting his central metaphor of "one nation" against the alternative vision of culture war, Wolfe makes his own position seem moderate and attractive. Were he not constantly playing off a notion of a fiercely divided society, one might discover other questions and thus other important qualities of the middle class.

Finally, in one case I suspect Wolfe is incorrect. He sees homosexuality as something of a grand exception to his larger thesis: Only a small percentage of his interviewees are willing to admit its legitimacy as a lifestyle. But the vast majority of them have come to accept homosexuals as worthy of rights and even of respect, if not of admiration. Measured against the historical baseline of great fear and misunderstanding, this tolerance may actually vindicate Wolfe's larger argument.

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S till, Wolfe's portrait captures an essential truth. Despite the huffing and puffing, divisions have been closing in gender, in notions of patriotism, and even in some dimensions of race. Religious fundamentalists, who once declaimed against fornication, now seek simply to hold the line at gay marriage. Meanwhile, liberals in the Democratic party have been publicly embracing the idiom of hard work and personal responsibility.

Wolfe also throws down an implicit challenge to liberals. At one point he imagines this middle-class plaint: "By dismissing our fears about declining morality out of hand, you fail to recognize that middle-class morality is not necessarily opposed to the values of inclusion and equality that you currently profess." Liberals have been like the pre-Civil War Whigs, at least as rendered by Louis Hartz in his classic Liberal Tradition in America. The Whigs kept seeing the proles through the lens of Europe's old feudal societies, imagining that America's lower orders wanted to seize property rather than acquire it. Rebuffing these lower classes when they could have beguiled them, the Whigs made potential friends into enemies. The post-1960s Democratic Party has come close to making the same mistake. Wolfe reminds us that for the Democrats, "taking back the middle" doesn't have to mean craven opportunism or a betrayal of its beliefs. Rather, it can simply mean rediscovering the common ground that liberals have long shared with the middle class without even realizing it.

It might be argued that Wolfe's portrait of the middle's muddle will be shocking only to a rarified and dogmatic crew of ideologues. But that's the virtue of this calm and sensible book. It doesn't aim to dazzle with flashy but misleading rubrics like "backlash." One Nation, After All is full of the very qualities its author imputes to the people: ordinary virtue, mature patriotism, and quiet faith.