When sociologists or historians have looked at the United States, they have quickly identified important differences of class. Indentured servants versus free settlers in the colonial era, sharecroppers versus landowners in the post-Civil War South, labor versus management in America’s industrial age. Some of the most influential examinations of American culture and politics have applied a class-conscious perspective. These range from academic studies such as John Dollard’s Caste and Class in a Southern Town, to novels such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, to great works of journalism such as J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, his chronicle of the struggles over school desegregation that polarized Boston in the 1970s.
Yet when Americans have looked at themselves, they have usually downplayed such differences in favor of the idea that most people are part of the great American middle class. For people at the top, this can be a form of modesty—or, more cynically, a way of deflecting attention from inequalities. For people at the bottom, it can reflect hopes and goals—and, of course, illusions. For everyone else, it reflects the combination of a reality and a theory.
The reality is that, compared with the still-feudal makeup of much of Europe and the stark extremes of many developing societies, America has indeed been the arena in which more people, from a broader variety of backgrounds, could pursue more opportunities than ever before. Even in rapidly growing modern China, the closest counterpart to our term for an average person would be laobaixing, with a connotation less like “middle class” and more like “the masses.”
In periods when U.S. society has not been more open, mobile, and equal than others in the world, many Americans have still acted as if there are benefits to believing, or pretending, the contrary. Through ups and downs, we have preferred to believe that the standard middle-class social contract is intact, and that those who follow the rules—study, marriage, work, discipline—can expect a reasonable middle-class outcome.
We’re now in one of those periods when the reality of intense pressure on the middle class diverges from long-held assumptions of how the American bargain should work. Compared with most European countries, our economy is more polarized and unequal. Compared with most Asian countries, the economic welfare of our middle class has been stagnant rather than rising. Compared with our own 20th-century history, our entire society is materially better off in countless ways—from life span and environmental improvement to average education levels, house size, and most other material measures—but is also becoming more stratified and rigid. The education and income level into which a child is born is becoming a better predictor of where he or she will end up as an adult. It has become hard to imagine new waves of opportunity and mobility comparable to those created by the 19th-century settlement of the West, the GI Bill, or the post-World War II migration to the Sun Belt.
In these circumstances, does it make sense for America to maintain the ideal, or myth, that we are a middle-class society? I believe it does, even though this concept may make it harder for us to perceive or discuss the nation’s genuine and growing inequalities. It remains worthwhile, because most of the elements of middle-class identity encourage traits America needs.
One of those elements is: Because I’m middle class, I have something in common with my neighbors and fellow citizens. The United States has been at its best politically and economically when we have viewed other members of society as “us” rather than “them.”
Another middle-class assumption is: I am as good as anyone else. This is in contrast to the forelock-tugging deference built into feudalism and now on display in Downton Abbey. From Poor Richard’s Almanack onward, American culture has reflected the belief that ideas and ambitions deserve consideration no matter their origin. This in turn has been an element of American ingenuity and resilience.
Finally, to be middle class is to believe that any goal should be within reach. Success takes effort, and it depends on luck. But a long string of ascents from middle-class-or-below origins, from the Wright brothers and Henry Ford a century ago to Steve Jobs and Barack Obama and Sonia Sotomayor in our day, suggests a possibility rare in other societies. We are better off believing that this is still the American way.
The author is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.