American politicians, especially during an election year, often ascribe to Europe all the qualities they most love to hate. They say its governments are dysfunctional, its welfare states are wasteful, its war-weary populations effeminate and, worst of all, its health care systems socialist. But perhaps the most traditional foil to America’s superiority is the Old World’s fixation on class. In places like Europe, the standard story goes, a combination of social snobbery and a stagnant economy limits the prospects of ordinary people. In America, on the other hand, class simply doesn’t exist. Here, anybody can start at the bottom and work their way up to the top.
These days, though, politicians are no longer so confident about the American Dream. Questions about America’s class system—and its strain on the country’s social fabric—have entered the national conversation in a way unlike any time in recent memory. Occupy Wall Street grew popular in good part by contrasting the “99 percent” of Americans who’ve suffered over these lean years to the “1 percent” who seemed to be growing richer even in the midst of a deep recession. This inspired liberals to voice their worries about the widening wealth gap and falling rates of economic mobility more stridently than they’d dared to in decades. As Barack Obama said in a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., rising “inequality gives lie to the promise at the heart of America: that this is the place where you can make it if you try.”
America’s increasingly visible class divisions have been fodder for conservatives as well. Mitt Romney claims to fear that Obama’s “class warfare” is tearing America apart. For all its faults, Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart takes seriously the decaying state of the white working-class. And Rick Santorum was honest enough to compare the worsening condition of America’s economic have-nots to their counterparts in Europe. As Santorum pointed out, economic “mobility in Europe” is now greater than in the United States.
All this talk can be salutary. It’s high time for Americans to have an open conversation about the reality of their own class divisions. For too long, excessive pride in the notion of a “land of opportunity” has masked the fact that too few tickets to the top are getting punched—and that the lives of those who are left behind are getting tougher. But if some politicians and commentators now go so far as to claim that America’s class system is as rigid as that of Europe, they simply can’t recognize an old-fashioned social hierarchy when they see one. It is true that economic mobility is lower in America than it is in most parts of Europe. But the class system remains much more static and entrenched in, say, Britain than it does in the United States.
If this sounds like a paradox, that’s only because, for most Americans, class is largely a matter of money. If you punch a time clock, you’re working class—even if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower. If your portfolio makes more than you do, you’re upper class—even if you were born into abject poverty. By definition, an American who is born poor but attains vast wealth sheds his original class label along the way.
In Britain, by contrast, class is about a lot more than the size of your bank account. If you live in poverty, you could still be upper class—a member of the landed gentry who has gambled away his estate is no less an aristocrat for being hard up. And if you earn a lot of money, that still doesn’t make you an aristocrat—if you weren’t born into the right family, you may be no more than nouveau riche. Class doesn’t necessitate money, and money certainly can’t buy class.
To understand the difference between America’s and Europe’s class system, we therefore have to make a distinction between economic and social mobility.