Clinging to the Dream

Why do Americans have such a hard time talking about class?

In April 2008, Just weeks after mesmerizing the country with a speech that candidly addressed the issue of race in America, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama found himself tripped up by the language of class. With a single comment that rural Pennsylvanians, stripped of job opportunities and thus mobility, “get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” Obama's lead shrank amid public outcry. Was what he said elitist? Definitely, said presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Was it accurate? Some media pundits believe so. Obama didn't back down from his position, but noted, “I didn't say it as well as I should have.”

In the weeks that followed, critics analyzed Obama's own class position, scrutinized his “Americanism,” and dissected the language he used. In particular, journalists noted how the term “cling” struck a chord in Americans, perhaps because it suggested something pathetic and passive, completely unlike the story that politicians are supposed to regale us with, especially during an election year: that, as American citizens, we have a choice in everything we do.
The idea that we would need to “cling” to anything paradoxically denotes a loosened grip on every ideal we hold dear.

While incendiary topics like race and gender continue to incite debate, economic class may very well be the last taboo. In a country that flaunts signifiers of social status, like sports cars or flat-screen TVs, why is such a universal topic so elusive in our day-to-day conversations?

Sociologists note the importance of differentiating between economic class and social status. Many define “class” as a combination of income, education, occupation, and wealth, and identify “social status” as a separate concept that evolves around prestige, lifestyle, and tastes. Yet because the two concepts seem closely related in the United States, Americans often use the terms interchangeably, and “class” takes on more and more definitions.

But this confusion of terms and definitions isn't the only reason Americans avoid talking about class. According to Carl Bybee, a professor at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication, an obstacle to discussing class is the term's close association with the phrase “class war,” which immediately renders the subject inflammatory. “Consequently, to talk about class is one thing,” he says, “but to talk about class in the frame of a class war positions the person who wants to talk about it as a radical, or as someone who is uninterested in dialogue.” Historian Tony Iaccarino agrees, noting that once the phrase “class war” is thrown into the mix, the language can resemble Marxist and socialist ideologies that post-Cold War Americans are hesitant to entertain.

“It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one,” historian Richard Hofstadter writes in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Founded on a rejection of established European constructs, the identity of the United States is rooted in its self-definition as “Americanism”—not unlike organized religions or political movements, as Seymour Martin Lipset notes in his book American Exceptionalism. And because of this status, if we ignore certain societal mores—like the American dream—we run the risk of being viewed as “un-American” in a way that citizens of other developed countries are not.

In admitting aloud that class barriers exist in America, we start to chip away at what some consider one of the building blocks of our society: “exceptionalism,” which is the belief in the fairness and mobility epitomized by the American dream—that we are indeed a classless, meritocratic society, exceptional in that every citizen can achieve success through ability and hard work. Iaccarino notes that the ideology of exceptionalism is rooted in the fact that the United States was founded on defiance of entrenched social classes, such as feudal aristocracies or caste systems, as well as on the belief that every individual has the right to vote and own land. This idealized American dream—prosperity achieved through merit rather than birth—would seem to guarantee a barrier-free society. “It's the peculiar curse of being an American,” Iaccarino says. “If you fail to elevate yourself, it is your fault.”

It is ingrained in the American psyche that anyone can achieve fi nancial success and that the responsibility lies on the individual's shoulders. Even though research shows that class mobility is leveling off , the majority of Americans surveyed in a 2008 Pew Research Center study believe that their children's chances to change their class status will increase. Yet according to Miles Corak's Generational Income Mobility in North America and Europe, a study of the relationship between parents' and children's incomes reveals that individuals in Canada, Denmark, Germany, France, Finland, Norway, and Sweden all have greater mobility than those in the United States. In fact, Corak's study says that U.S. social mobility is more on par with Great Britain—a country with entrenched social classes.

But given the ideology of exceptionalism, most Americans believe we are all, intrinsically, born into one class: the middle class. According to the Pew study, 20 percent of Americans making less than $20,000 a year identify themselves as part of the middle class, as do a third of those netting $150,000 or more. Our presidential candidates aren't any more certain about what constitutes the middle class—Clinton defines the top earners of the middle class as those making $250,000; Obama says they are those making $75,000.

Part of this tendency to gravitate toward identifying as one large group may be attributed to the reorganization of the American economic system: where once there was a reliable supply of unionized, well-paying jobs— which provided not only a substantial paycheck, but also the camaraderie and pride that came with having a blue-collar job—there is now a growing economic polarization and a marked lag in employment in the so-called labor industries, such as the once robust market of manufacturing. In the last century, corporate capitalism has dominated the market, and a culture of CEOs looking out for the bottom line has become the norm. That bottom line has meant shuttering factories, outsourcing jobs to countries with cheap labor, or allotting certain responsibilities to computers. Labor unions have dwindled to representing 12.1 percent of the working population, and, according to a recent Brookings Institution paper, the portion of the U.S. workforce employed in manual labor makes up less than a quarter of the population: down from more than a third in the 1940s.

The opposite is true for white-collar jobs, which traditionally require a college degree: the percentage of workers holding such jobs has almost doubled in the same period of time and now encompasses 60 percent of the population. Jobs that don't require a college education but that still can be counted on to generate a living wage are increasingly scarce. Sociologist Larry Bartels defines today's working class as the group of Americans without college degrees. In 1940, 95 percent of adults age twenty-five and older fit into this group; now, 54 percent have some college education, with 29 percent holding at least a BA. Though many more people are attending college—and feeling that they must class plays a pivotal role in being able to obtain a degree. While college may be viewed by some as a meritocracy in itself, getting there is another matter. Class-based circumstances, like good school districts, the option of SAT prep classes, and parental assistance, go a long way toward garnering acceptance at a university. A lack of these options can add to the later dilemma faced by many Americans who, though aware of employers' expectations of a degree, cannot or choose not to undertake the large all but guarantees.

Issues like race and gender are also central to the unease some feel when discussing social class. Both have been major barriers to social equality in American society, and Iaccarino believes that they have acted as a proxy for barriers based on class. Allowing ourselves to believe that there are no class barriers to upward mobility allows us to maintain a certain obliviousness to the economic structure of our society. Historically, this has encouraged working-class whites to focus on the issue of race rather than class, channeling economic frustrations into racism. History is full of moments when Americans, instead of banding together to fight economic exploitation, sought out ethnic solidarity instead. For example, the nineteenth-century theater form known as minstrelsy—skits that depicted impoverished black and, initially, Irish cultures as ignorant, lazy, or childlike—began as a forum for white Americans to mock the poorest members of society. The form was also used by Irish immigrants, who were eager to highlight their white ethnicity and Americanism, and, in doing so, carve out a better place for themselves in American society by identifying with their white economic oppressors.

“If there is a divide in American society, it is not between classes, but between groups of whites,” Iaccarino says. “The poor whites identify with rich whites because of the color of their skin. This gives a sense of belonging and participation in society, so what we have is not a lower class, but a lower race.” Given the multitude of historic obstacles to race and gender equality in American society, certain class issues have been explained away through discrimination. For example, if there is a large population of working-class African Americans who have not yet benefited from a meritocracy, this might be attributed to America's history of slavery and racism, rather than as evidence that class barriers exist.

American exceptionalism puts working-class whites, who've historically faced fewer barriers to mobility, in an untenable position. Val Burris, professor of socioeconomics at the University of Oregon, says, “I think [working-class whites] do push some buttons, create some anxieties, because there's not a good way to reconcile their existence within this ideology.” The number of white males who remain “working class” could indicate that our economic system, though open to the idea of mobility, is still very much dependent on the educational and occupational options you were born into, as much as anything else. However, the ideology of exceptionalism can also be used to explain away this threat of acknowledging the existence of entrenched social classes, as it allows Americans to view those in the working or lower classes not as being disenfranchised, but as having failed because of a lack of ambition, laziness, or some other personal flaw that can't necessarily be attributed to society. Burris points out that humor is also used to alleviate the anxiety inspired by this white working- class conundrum—public comedic riffs on “white trash” still elicit guffaws, whereas racist or sexist jokes now tend to spark anger.

Like race, class is a loaded issue, full of questions that are rarely answered. Perhaps people tend to avoid talking about class for fear of being seen either as elitist or revolutionary; given these options, maybe the fact that the majority of people choose to identify with the middle class makes sense. We like—and perhaps need—to hear about and discuss rags-to-riches stories. This is an acceptable way for us to talk about class, as well as a clear example of upward mobility in our society. Compare our pop media with that of England: While British tabloids sell best when reporting rumors about members of the monarchy, U.S. gossip columns cater to America's appetite for Hollywood—a seemingly perfect example of the endless mobility afforded to a few folks who worked hard (or got lucky).

Are stories like these depicted as achievable in order to deflect attention from the growing economic gulf in the United States? “You don't want to talk about the actual existing numbers, about the way in which individual incomes are divided between the top 20 percent of the population,” Bybee notes, “because that starts to get people thinking about how economically divided this nation is.” Currently, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income of all high-income nations, with over 40 percent of income in the hands of the richest 10 percent of the population, and only 1.8 percent going to the poorest 10 percent. The richest 1 percent of Americans possesses more wealth than that of the entire bottom 90 percent. And though the vast majority of Americans surveyed in the Pew Research Center study feel that it is more difficult to maintain their standard of living now than it was five years ago, almost two-thirds believe they have surpassed their parents' standard of living—perhaps an indication of how strongly we subscribe to the American dream.

We live in a society rife with designer clothing knockoff s and creative loan endeavors that make classifying people at first glance almost impossible without a peek at a shirt label or a credit score. And despite sociologists' admonitions, the term “class” has come to signify status, based on how you live your life and what kind of material possessions you own, even though these things technically have little to do with what economic class you belong to. Perhaps these status indicators give us the impression that mobility is more attainable than ever, making them an important part of the American dream, even while the Pew study reveals that the only major upward shift in middle-income Americans' economic lives is the amount they borrow: the debt-to-income ratio has more than doubled in the past fifteen years.

Beyond status markers like clothing or cars, there are much deeper signifiers of class barriers that simple material purchases cannot mask. How we talk or present ourselves can immediately communicate much more than we intend, especially in a competitive, white-collar workplace. Accents and regional dialects play a major part in how we read each other; they also can be obstacles to those who want to fi t into an upper-class work environment and who would have to change such aspects of themselves in order to do so. Val Burris says, “There's a way in which that struggle to redefine oneself—to attain mobility—is an easily frustrated thing that many people retreat from eventually.”

Many of us would like to think that class doesn't exist in America. We may acknowledge how income, education, wealth, and status affect our lives, but does an individual's drive to achieve the American dream wane if these factors nullify upward mobility? And if we discuss class, do we have to discuss our own economic exploitation and how we exploit others?

Some experts speculate that Americans' belief in a meritocratic society may be shifting with the shrinking number of blue-collar jobs. Whether this means that we're becoming “bitter” is up for debate. Many scholars feel that the American dream prevents class-based bitterness— that we respect billionaires because, theoretically, any of us can become one. But with a stagnant economy and an upper class tucked out of sight in vacation compounds and private jets, maybe admitting to a little bitterness or disillusionment might spark a discussion. Perhaps Obama's comments about class weren't as diplomatic as we've come to expect from a politician, but they also may have provided a much-needed jolt to our nation's ongoing conversation about class.

From the Summer 2008 Class issue


America, Economics, Equity, Identity


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New Again

Clinging to the Dream

Under God

Firing a Friend

My Brother, the Keeper

Immobile Dreams

Home Economics