30 Oct 2011

A House Divided

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Anne Applebaum contends that the really important class division in the United States isn’t between the infinitesimally small category of the Super Rich and everybody else, but the ever enlarging fissure between the haute bourgeoisie and the ordinary middle class.

I would argue that the growing divisions within the American middle class are far more important than the gap between the very richest and everybody else. They are important because to be “middle class”, in America, has such positive connotations, and because most Americans think they belong in it. The middle class is the “heartland”, the middle class is the “backbone of the country”. In 1970, Time magazine described middle America as people who “sing the national anthem at football games – and mean it”.

“Middle America” also once implied the existence of a broad group of people who had similar values and a similar lifestyle. If you had a small suburban home, a car, a child at a state university, an annual holiday on a Michigan lake, you were part of it. But, at some point in the past 20 years, a family living at that level lost the sense that it was doing “well”, and probably struggled even to stay there. Now it seems you need a McMansion, children at private universities, two cars, a ski trip in the winter and a summer vacation in Europe in order to feel as if you are doing minimally “well”. You also need a decent retirement fund, since what the state pays is so risible, as well as an employer who can give you a generous health-care plan, since health care is so expensive.

Anne Applebaum focuses her brief discussion on the economic gap between the community of fashion elite and the old-fashioned middle classes, but I think that the cultural and political division is even more important.

The American Upper Middle Class constitutes the constituency of Progressivism, Scientism, Statism, Collectivism. They are the people who consider eating at the newest restaurant vitally important, but who never attend church. Members of the American community of fashion elite feel more comfortable and at home in Rome and Paris than they do in Akron or Bakersfield. They are more sympathetic to Islamic insurgents overseas than they are to tax protestors at home.

A certain small number of Americans (myself and a number of the contributors to Maggie’s Farm are typical) have a foot in both camps, having acquired elite educations and expensive tastes, but somehow mysteriously having avoided complete assimilation to haute bourgeois liberalism. From our uniquely privileged perspective, it is exceptionally clear just how deep, and how bitter, the recent new class divisions really are.

It isn’t only, as Anne Applebaum notes, that the upper middle class and ordinary middle class have become increasingly distinct and different. They now really detest one another.

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And things could really light up, as now the upper middle class are clamoring for the ordinary middle class to pay for their brats ill-advised over-priced useless degree from a selective non-profit private school that wouldn’t even consider most from the ordinary middle class for attendance.

I keep reading about how now the fear is your kids won’t do better than their parents. Well, what would you expect. Grandpa opened a store and made a decent living. Dad was the first generation to attend college and got a degree in engineering, accounting or business. Now the lovely granddaugher, she has a masters in art history. But it looks like she won’t earn as much pursuing what fulfills her as dad did in his ordinary career. It must be a decline in America causing this?


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