Talking About Class in America
There is probably no topic on which confusion is more widespread than that of class in the United States. Equivocation about the meanings of words such as “elite” is widespread and often willful. Any attempt at a thorough treatment of class is likely to end up as diffuse and inconclusive as the subject itself. For this reason, rather than venture a systematic account of the American class system as it actually exists, I will confine myself to the following loosely ordered observations. These 12 propositions are not meant to be exhaustive:
1. To the extent that class is seriously discussed in this country, it is usually in bad faith. Liberals are either uninterested in the subject, which tends to to put paid to their most lunatic speculations concerning so-called “identity politics,” or working with dated categories (cf. President Biden’s comments about the middle class, which he seems to conceive of in the same terms that would have been familiar during his childhood). Then on the left there are Marxist accounts of American class, which may or may not tell us something worthwhile about economic relations but will almost certainly fail to say anything of value about class distinctions as they are actually experienced. Defining class solely on the basis of one’s relations to capital—the owner-manager of a diner in rural Iowa is the holder of capital, which the president of Harvard University merely serves—will lack the fine texture that such analysis necessarily requires to be of real value. Finally, on the right there has been a tendency to reduce class identity almost entirely to various signifiers in consumer culture. This has become more pronounced than ever since the last presidential administration, during which a Manhattan billionaire became the national spokesman for what is perceived as a lower middle class lifestyle brand—trucks, camo, and so on.
2. Class is not synonymous with income. This is why the standard account of American class relations—in which a solid middle class bestrides lower and upper variants of itself, and both of these in turn stare down the indigent and the ultra-wealthy—is inadequate. In a fascinating but little-remembered book Paul Fussell proposed a kind of parallel to the upper middle class which he termed “high prole”: plumbers, electricians, contractors, farmers, who have essentially the same cultural habits, tastes, etc., as the lower middle class but incomes comparable to those working in the professions.
3. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that a majority of Americans are capitalists in the Marxist sense because they own 401(k) accounts and their wealth depends upon the supposed health of the New York Stock Exchange in a way that would have been unthinkable to all but the extremely rich and some professionals a century ago. This is especially true now that pensions no longer exist outside the public sector.
4. Because class is a social and cultural as well as an economic phenomenon, it follows that there should be certain markers of class that transcend economics. This is still the case, but it is hard not to think that in some ways it is less true than it has ever been. For one thing, the sorts of preferences in consumer culture identified by vulgar right-wing pundits—avocado toast, aioli, acai bowls—quickly transcend their origins. The Brooklynite trends mocked in the conservative press half a decade or even two years ago are fixtures of Applebee’s now. Meanwhile, dress—for most of history one of the strongest indicators of one’s station—enjoys a curious equivocal position in the firmament of class relations. In the Fordist era and indeed for much of industrial modernity dress was remarkably egalitarian: A working man looked respectable in his Sunday suit and hat, and so did a banker. Now that we no longer have a meaningful domestic textile industry and there is very little occupying the once-vast space between plastic Chinese garbage and luxury goods, clothing has once again become a significant class marker, but it is a question of brands rather than of design. For this reason it should go without saying that athleisure and casualism are the opposite of egalitarian: Mark Zuckerberg wearing a $2,000 hoodie to a meeting with his shareholders tells us a great deal about wealth as well as about class.
5. Social mobility still exists in America, and it is more common than economic mobility. Any number of young people attend Directional State University and adopt what might be called “elite” views, tastes, attitudes, etc., but their incomes are more or less lower middle class, especially by the standards of the regions in which they live. Anyone who has spent a certain amount of time in small-town America is familiar with the single 20-something bank teller who owes $50,000 in student loans and sports a rainbow flag sticker on the back of the car still insured by her high prole parents.
6. In my lifetime the American middle class has largely disappeared—or rather been absorbed, into the lower and upper middle classes respectively. Among the most important causes of this has been the introduction of women without professional qualifications into the workforce. A family that might have been solidly middle class in 1980 is now barely lower middle class despite the doubling of incomes.
7. The most important source of tension in American social life is not the conflict between the lower middle class and the upper middle classes but one between the former and high proles: Trumpism was really the high prole element in the GOP asserting itself against the upper middle class professional lawyerly caste who had long controlled the party as a kind of second-rate imitation of the really influential professional classes whose interests align with those of the Democratic party.
8. Much has been written about the so-called professional and managerial classes or “PMC,” very little of it useful. This is because as a catch-all category it is simply too wide. Consulting, human resources, marketing, and so on are the real face of what we mean by the PMC, whose role essentially is to control the means by which information is exchanged in society. It is a valuable role and sometimes well remunerated, but a curious thing is how many people would rather make $45,000 in New York policing the question of gender in video games than become, say, nurses’ assistants or roofers and make vastly more money.
9. One of the most significant issues in American class relations is the differing understanding of risk. The most pronounced characteristic of the upper middle classes is their aversion to risk. It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that the tendency of the upper middle class to shuffle risk down the class ladder to workers is more pronounced than it is among high proles. Both classes derive their wealth from exporting precariousness downward; the difference is that high proles do so using the language of indifferentism and a sentimental attitude about the value of work, while consultants use spreadsheets—offshoring is cheaper; of course this town can use another Dollar General—and vague identity politics justifications when explaining why the lower orders should continue to be brutalized.
10. One’s attitude toward Covid-19 is a good heuristic for class; among other things it is the best illustration of the all-important tension between the PMC and the high prole. But here as elsewhere the causes of this social phenomenon are at bottom economic: Unlike that of the PMC, who is still inventing excuses for not returning to the office as we approach two years of Covid hysteria, the high prole’s income depends upon activity that cannot take place over Zoom, and he is far more likely to have experienced significant adverse consequences from lockdown measures early last year. This explains, among other things, why despite the popular media image serious Trump voters are as likely to have received the vaccines as members of the PMC; real vaccine hesitancy is instead concentrated among the lower middle class, especially in health care and service industries.
11. Even within the PMC there are significant cultural divisions, especially on geographic lines; in Middle America the PMC (a middle school guidance counselor, say) owns a lawn tractor and a leaf blower, takes little interest in prestige television and so on, much like his high prole neighbor in the McMansion next door. The difference is that the high prole is much more likely to spend his Saturday with friends and relations over watching college football and drinking more than the CDC-recommended amount of alcoholic beverages or doing the latter on his expensive fishing boat, whereas the Middle American PMC will be ferrying one of his school-aged children to a travel soccer tournament.
12. What was once recognized as genuine working class culture—barbecuing in public parks, public consumption of alcoholic beverages, even religious observance—is vastly more likely to take place in minority communities, especially among immigrants or their immediate descendants, than it is among what remains of the white working class. Anyone who has attempted to make conversation about baseball or college football with a clerk at AutoZone in rural America will recognize that video games and other forms of mass culture that seem to transcend class boundaries have almost totally displaced working class culture among younger whites. These asymmetries make rhetoric about immigration and the preservation of “traditional values,” which was always somewhat ill-conceived, little short of absurd.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.