National uniformity extends far deeper than the realm of politics. Foreign visitors have often noticed that Americans of diverse backgrounds and occupations exhibit the same personal values and attitudes. On the basis of this homogeneity, some observers have declared that the nation contains no social classes but is one enormous middle class. Americans themselves seem to agree, for their pundits speak of “the middle class” as if it included everyone except the desperately poor and the extremely rich.
an incessant message:
clean, regular living
makes for success in
In some respects, the idea of a single-class society is inaccurate. There are in fact significant differences of social class in the United States, and it is only their relative subtlety that allows both foreigners and natives to overlook them.[ 1 ] But, on the other hand, there is a large amount of truth in the idea of middle-class values dominating America. Not only are the divisions of class that have existed in Europe and in other traditional societies marked by more obvious external signs than those in the United States, their internal substance is also deeper and more fundamental. The basic values of people at one social level can be entirely different from and even opposed to the values of people at another level, so much so that the members of different classes in the same society have difficulty understanding and empathizing with one another. Consequently, it is easy for them to fall into conflict, both individual and collective.
This is not true of the United States. To a remarkable extent, all Americans recognize the same values (particularly those of economic individualism),[ 2 ] which are the values of the middle class. So widespread is their acceptance that they are not identified as belonging to or originating in any particular part of society but are viewed as universal—the way in which everyone behaves or ought to behave. What differentiates the various levels or classes of American society is the degree to which their respective members actually possess and exhibit these values, as distinct from merely acknowledging their validity and importance, which everyone does. People at the bottom have much less of this social capital [ 1b ] (as it has been called) than people at the top, and that results in their remaining on the bottom. But the fact of everyone at least sharing the same standard of values, if not exhibiting the same amount of these values, prevents the creation of the stark barriers of incomprehension and hostility that exist in traditional societies.
In the mid-Nineteenth Century, one international traveler found that human solidarity and sympathy, which were confined within each separate social class in Europe, extended to the entire nation in America: “There is no man there whose position every other man does not understand; each has in himself the key to the feelings of his neighbor....” A later and far more famous visitor, James Bryce, enlarged on the observation: “What the employer thinks, his workmen think. What the wholesale merchant feels, the retail storekeeper feels, and the poorer customers feel. Divisions of opinion are vertical and not horizontal.” The sociologist David Riesman also spoke of a substantial uniformity among Americans: “Middle-class values and styles of perception reach into all levels except perhaps the fringes at the very top and the very bottom.”
The extension of
to the lower-class
has been a great
At an early stage in the development of American society, the middle class became dominant over both the upper class and the lower class. This was not what happened in many traditional societies, where hereditary wealth developed an ethos of aristocracy that exerted its influence on the rest of the population. Middle-class people tried to mimic it, and even rogues on the street could be heard disputing points of honor and repeating what they believed to be courtly figures of speech. Something entirely different occurred in the United States. The egalitarian spirit of the new nation swept away the remnants and imitations of old-world aristocracy, and it has continued to frustrate the pretensions of would-be aristocrats and incipient aristocracies ever since. There are many people of hereditary wealth in the United States today, but they do not set the tone or the standards for the rest of society. If anything, they try to act like those on the level just below them, “the credentialed upper-middle class.”
The extension of middle-class values to the lower class was more difficult and required a more prolonged effort. From the 1820s onward, society after society and organization after organization was founded to improve some aspect or other of lower-class life. Although many of these groups (such as those of the temperance movement) sought to reform undesirable behavior wherever it occurred, among high and low alike, the reality was that middle-class people usually directed the operations, while lower-class people were most often the object of their attentions.
From the outset, individuals perceived the connection between adopting the self-discipline of middle-class life and attaining the rewards of economic productivity. By becoming more sober, punctual, and industrious, a person became a more efficient, more valuable, and more highly paid worker. This was also the route into the business world. As Tocqueville explained, the desire for wealth led Americans to commerce and manufacturing, where a person needed “strictly regular habits and a long routine of petty uniform acts” in order to prosper. Throughout the Nineteenth Century and most of the Twentieth, moralistic speeches and tracts repeated an incessant message: clean, regular living makes for success in life.
This country “is
the paradise of
This insistence on middle-class virtues has been much ridiculed in recent times, at least in certain intellectual milieus. Past efforts to reform the lower classes have been condemned as attempts to control them and make them susceptible to the exploitation of capitalism. In reply to such criticism, two points need to be made.
First, lower-class Americans did not generally resist middle-class values. Many, especially those at the higher end of their class, actively sought to acquire them, as a way to better their condition. It is the poor, after all, who are most likely to be the victims of drink, violence, and other lower-class vices. It was the poor who accordingly responded in greatest number to the various temperance movements of the Nineteenth Century and who were the firmest and most enduring supporters of Prohibition in the Twentieth. Just as immigrants have become Americanized far more by their own actions than by any formal program of Americanization, people of the lower class—often the immigrants themselves—have acquired middle-class self-discipline by their own volition, rather than having it imposed upon them from above.
Second, the extension of middle-class values to the lower class has been a great success. It resulted in the rural and urban poor acquiring the essential and necessary behavior that made them capable of participating in and deriving benefits from the developing industrial economy. Like the assimilation of immigrants, it has continued to the present day, counteracting the threat of class conflict and contributing to the strength of a unified people.
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The triumph of middle-class values is especially evident in one particular facet of social behavior—the control of sexuality. A comparison with English society is illuminating. Puritan attitudes arose in both countries, but in England only the middle class accepted them as an iron standard of respectable behavior; in America they dominated the entire society.
The real crime
of passion in
America is a
Folk music vividly reflects the contrast between the lower classes of the two peoples. The lyrics of numerous English folk songs, like love ballads everywhere, present a variety of emotions, ranging from joy to sorrow and including much tenderness and melancholy, but they also deal openly and naturally with the realities of sex. Such songs did not survive on the other side of the Atlantic. Americans either scrubbed them clean of anything explicitly erotic or banished them to the shadows of social life, where they degenerated into crude obscenity.
The power of sexual restrictions in the United States was equally impressive at the higher levels of society. Affairs and seductions had long been a source of interest and amusement among the fashionable circles of Europe, where a successful Don Juan could become an alluring celebrity. This was not the case in America, where both the formal provisions of the law and the informal sanctions of public opinion imposed heavy penalties on anyone, no matter how prominent, who strayed into adultery. So effective were these prohibitions that in the 1830s a visiting Frenchman declared, with mixed feelings of frustration and admiration, this country “is the paradise of husbands.”
During the Nineteenth Century, foreign visitors commented on the extreme delicacy of American women in avoiding any reference to certain parts of the body. On occasion, they went as far as to fashion trousers to cover the legs of pianos. The case might be made that in Britain itself Victorian prudery never reached the extremes that it did in certain quarters of the United States. There seem to have been no trousers on pianos in England.
Tocqueville noticed the contrast between the severe treatment of sexual offenses and the lenient treatment of bankruptcies, and he pointed out that both practices had the effect of promoting a single objective—material productivity. One kept a man from dissipating his energies in an unremunerative enterprise and from disturbing his neighbors’ emotional tranquility, which was an important foundation of their steady efforts on the job. The other permitted him to be bold and venturesome in his commercial career. Discourage sex and encourage business, impose restraints on the former and give freedom to the latter—that used to be a classic if unstated rule of society, which had the effect of diverting effort and attention from the one activity to the other. As a character in an Edith Wharton novel remarked, the real crime of passion in America is a “big steal.”
One moment, they
puritans and the
In the 1960s, all this began to change, and today people have difficulty understanding the sexual repression of the past and realizing what an achievement it was. American society succeeded in controlling an unruly and restive force that every orderly culture has found to be problematical and dangerously disruptive to some degree. The most conspicuous sign of success is the fact that many, if not most, Americans no longer view sex as a threat. So strong, embedded, and innate have middle-class habits of productivity become in the population at large, that casual sex can now function as a reward for personal achievement and a recreation from work, without arousing the fear that it might get out of control and cause significant social damage.
This transition from puritan morality to superficial hedonism has created a certain amount of confusion. So tenacious are the old attitudes toward sex that the new attitudes have left many people troubled and uncertain. Conservatives, provincials, and various other nervous individuals think they are witnessing the rise of decadence and degeneration.
Critics in other countries are similarly puzzled and ambiguous. One moment, they call Americans puritans and the next moment pornographers. The confusion has been going on for some time. Many a foreigner has been deceived by the flagrantly erotic content of American movies and other products of popular culture, only to find on his arrival in the land of the free, not a sink of profligacy and self-indulgence, but a people industriously going about their work and preoccupied with making money, as they always have been for the last two hundred years at least.