Commentary Magazine


One Nation, After All by Alan Wolfe

One Nation, After All
by Alan Wolfe
Viking. 358 pp. $24.95

Even when they do not set out with that in mind, comprehensive portraits of American culture and society almost always end up turning into studies of the middle class. There are good reasons for this. While the United States has never been a universally or uniformly middle-class society—a truism that social scientists continue to trumpet as if it were a pathbreaking discovery—the values and aspirations of the middle class have dominated the American moral landscape for most of our history. “As the middle class goes,” writes the sociologist Alan Wolfe in the opening sentence of this book, “so goes America”—and he is undoubtedly right.

This does not mean, however, that it is easy to define the middle class. In fact, it sometimes seems that an amorphous sense of “betweenness” is about as precise as our definitions can get. Economically, the term seems to cover a wide range of circumstances, in a fluid, shifting space between utter want and dependency on the one hand and conspicuous or superfluous wealth on the other. So, too, with middle-class norms, which ideally call for a life of neither docile servility nor godlike unconstraint but aim at the more modest goal of what used to be called “competency”—an ability to fend for oneself and take responsibility for one’s life, without presuming to raise oneself above the plane of one’s peers and thereby violate the principle of social equality. But the main point is this: middle-class status is as much a matter of shared sensibility as of shared socioeconomic prospects.

In One Nation, After All, Alan Wolfe, now at Boston University, focuses exclusively and with a surprising measure of sympathy on this sensibility, as reflected in extensive interviews that he and an assistant conducted in eight suburban communities scattered around the country. (The book’s full subtitle is “What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About: God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, the Right, the Left, and Each Other.”) I say a surprising measure of sympathy because modern intellectuals of the Left have almost invariably defined themselves and their ethos in opposition to middle-class morality, and have been unremittingly hostile to the suburban enclaves that are its characteristic habitat. Well aware of this bias, and of the damage it has done to our actual knowledge of the American middle class, Wolfe has sought to listen to his subjects as carefully and objectively as possible, and then to make sense of what they have said.

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What he has heard has convinced him of two main propositions. First, the American middle class is not in imminent danger of eroding or breaking up into its various constituent parts on account of multicultural tensions or wars over divergent values. We are, as Wolfe’s title avers, still one nation, and that nation is still dominated by a reasonably homogeneous class. Second, however, the nature of middle-class unity has changed dramatically in recent decades. Contemporary America, Wolfe writes, has produced “a new middle-class morality,” one that “bears little relationship to the way that term has been used in the past,” whether by the indefatigable critics on the Left or, lately, by conservative intellectuals who have sought a moral bulwark in the putative solidity and traditionalism of middle-class values.

To see what Wolfe’s “new middle-class morality” consists of, let us look at a few representative areas, beginning with religion. Appearances notwithstanding, Wolfe concludes, there is no large-scale revival taking place among middle-class Americans. On the contrary, his interviewees, even many of those who claim to have strong Christian convictions, display a consistent aversion to the use of absolutes or exclusive truth-claims in describing their religious beliefs. Though some of them think the government has become too hostile to religion, they also feel that religion should not be permitted to guide public policy. Nor, on the whole, do they favor making a public display of their religious views, or permitting them to inform or interfere with the practical details of their individual lives. They believe in the Ten Suggestions, not the Ten Commandments.

Within the family, Wolfe finds, a kind of disheveled ambivalence reigns. Even if they are not comfortable with them, most Americans have absorbed the transformations wrought by the past three decades of social change. Neither traditionalists nor postmodernists, middle-class Americans are, rather, realists who accept the need to adjust to changing circumstances by inventing family forms that “work” for them. At the same time, though, they worry about the quality of their family life. While some invoke economic necessity to justify both parents working outside the home, others, including working women, are apprehensive over the effects of this arrangement on their children. Ironically, one of the most frequently expressed concerns is that the rising generation is being spoiled by material abundance—the same abundance produced by dual-income households where women “have to” work.

American nationalism and patriotism? These have not disappeared, but they too have changed, becoming more inclusive, more modest, and more wary. Attitudes toward immigration, according to Wolfe, are generally positive, unless the immigration in question is illegal. Similarly, middle-class Americans approve of a mild, “celebrate your heritage” brand of multiculturalism, so long as it makes no claims against, for example, the hegemony of the English language, and so long as it does not have the effect of dividing or Balkanizing the nation. But in the wake of Vietnam and other polarizing episodes, there has been a decrease in both pro- and anti-American rhetoric, and a convergence in what might be called a chastened center, one which affirms the nation but does so conditionally and rationally, without crusading zeal, and in full recognition of past and present faults.

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The connecting themes of tentativeness and understatement in all these attitudes are well captured in a series of catch-phrases Wolfe has devised to characterize them: “quiet faith,” “modest virtues,” “mature patriotism,” “ordinary duties,” and “morality writ small.” The American middle class is pragmatic and conflict-averse. Its members are turned off by the bloviating and pretentious moral rhetoric of politicians and public spokesmen. They distrust the manipulative intentions behind such rhetoric, and fear the divisiveness that can be engendered by appeals to morality writ large. Instead, they have assembled a bricolage morality, pulled together in idiosyncratic fashion out of the pieces of this or that tradition, always with a view toward utility. They seek a sensible morality, to go with their soft, sensible shoes.

Wolfe finds much to admire in this disposition, so at odds with the explosive public discourse of the day, or with Crossfire-like shouting matches on television between representatives of the cultural Left and Right. In contrast to that distorted view, Wolfe offers a portrait of rough moral consensus: one which resists the more extreme positions of the Left—including, most notably, the attempt to “mainstream” homosexuality—but also parts company with the Right’s propensity for judgmentalism and rigidity. Future reforms, he urges, would do well to build upon the considerable virtues of this pragmatic consensus.

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What are we to say about all this? In many respects, what Wolfe has done is to refresh and update the enduring image of a practical-minded, generous, self-interested, “middling,” and unheroic American people that was described so memorably by Alexis de Tocqueville, its first great observer. There is real value in being reminded of these enduring characteristics, particularly when so much social-scientific inquiry, imbued with the values of the cultural Left, has been intent on denigrating the middle class as a seedbed of social and psychological pathology. As was seen most recently in the truly astonishing negative reaction to Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s well-documented claim that America has made massive and rapid progress in race relations, there is much that is untrustworthy in the intentions, and the reality-meters, of certain of our most vocal intellectuals. Middle-class Americans instinctively grasp the stake such people have in the perpetuation of grievance and disunity, and Wolfe appears to applaud their good sense.

Wolfe is probably also correct to point out that middle-class Americans are no less turned off by moralism from the Right. Still, the reader cannot help noticing that, in contrast with his treatment of the Left, Wolfe’s criticisms of the Right are disproportionately harsh, and more often than not are expressed with a surprising lack of specificity, as if he felt no requirement to prove his case. Almost every statement in this book about “conservative intellectuals” seems to me demonstrably false, often taking the form of lazy and predictable throwaway lines. Consider the following passage, which has to be quoted at length to be appreciated:

When conservative intellectuals write on moral matters, if Robert Bork is at all representative, they often do so in a tone so harsh in its judgment, so intemperately negative of the modern condition, so distrustful of ordinary human beings, so vehement in its insistence on one and only one truth, so ideological in its style of argumentation, and so seemingly unaware that even good morals can have bad consequences, that their message loses its resonance for real people in real-world situations. If that is what a belief in right and wrong entails, many middle-class Americans would conclude, then perhaps it is better to find another way of thinking about right and wrong.

Where does one begin with such a wild statement? And about whom, besides the grossly maligned Robert Bork, is Wolfe talking? James Q. Wilson? Gertrude Himmelfarb? William J. Bennett? Is their alleged “harshness” the match in any respect of that of, say, Catharine MacKinnon, Noam Chomsky, or Gore Vidal?

Conservatives have learned to overlook such slights, and indeed many have already done so in this case. (Wolfe’s book carries an appreciative blurb by none other than William J. Bennett.) But there is another problem with One Nation, After All, or perhaps I should say with the phenomena it describes, that is not unrelated to Wolfe’s distaste for strongly stated versions of “a belief in right and wrong.”

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According to repeated surveys, the American public seems determined (as of this writing) to disavow any connection between President Bill Clinton’s ethical behavior in office, including not only sexual scandals but a steady pattern of other serious malfeasances, and its evaluation of his performance as President. Ever since this seeming contradiction became manifest, pundits have been trying to find something positive to say about it—for example, that it shows an America “growing up” and becoming more tolerant. At the very least, the public’s reaction to the Clinton scandals would seem to show that, in one sense, Alan Wolfe is right: nonjudgmentalism is now the order of the day. Even the Reverend Billy Graham, symbol of American evangelical Protestantism, has cooperated, having forgiven the President for sins he not only has not confessed to but has resolutely denied committing.

Whatever Reverend Graham had in mind, what are we to make of the American people’s seeming indifference to these matters? Are they now grown-ups, worthy of comparison at last with the French (those moral giants)? Does their attitude signal an abiding fair-mindedness, a determination to wait for all the evidence to come in? Or does it mean they are so fat and happy that they are unwilling to upset the status quo? Or—still another possibility—have we become a nation so compromised by our own individual moral failings that we no longer feel entitled to make judgments about the behavior of anyone else, lest we ourselves stand condemned?

This last question, as we are constantly reminded by our semi-educated punditocracy, restates a central proposition in Christian moral teaching. But that proposition has a very different meaning when it is grounded in a belief not in the Ten Suggestions but in a real moral order and in a God who has bequeathed us real commandments. To put this another way: there is a kind of moral liberality that may really be a form of cowardice, and a kind of tolerance that may really be a mask for self-protective indifference, of the kind signaled in that weary word of our day, “whatever. . . .” Just so, there is a kind of agreeableness that can be a mask for cynicism or loss of conviction; a kind of sentimental openness, or inclusiveness, that may mask a contempt for truth; and a kind of eclecticism that masks the inability to make hard choices.

All these moral possibilities are no less inherent in the portrait of middle-class America Wolfe has painted than is the live-and-let-live pragmatism he extols. This is hardly to deny the many good things that have derived from that pragmatism. The tolerance for cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity that has become a defining feature of contemporary American life is a particularly admirable development. And without a doubt, modest virtues are genuine virtues. But as Wolfe himself acknowledges, they are not enough.

The real testing time, in any case, will occur not in the fat and happy years but in the hard times that sooner or later lie ahead of us. Such times will require leaders willing to challenge, and citizens willing to be challenged. Whether either will be on display when they are needed is anyone’s guess.

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About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.




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