Monday, October 13, 2008

Election 2008 - On "Class" Distinctions

My mother has always been adamant that in America we absolutely, positively do not have a class system. She says that because that is what she learned in school. It is important to note that my mother went to an all-white school in the Jim Crow South. They had some very good reasons for teaching that garbage. In any case, Mom learned the lesson well, believed it and it became one of the articles of her faith in America. [I have never had the heart to break it to her that she was wrong. She doesn't use computers so my secret is safe. Shhh!]

She taught me that we live in a classless society, and I believed it, for a long time. I could get away with believing it when I lived at home because I grew up in a small town where almost everybody was white and at least nominally Christian, and nobody was either very rich or very poor. Even in that protected environment, class was a big factor in our lives, but I couldn't see it until after I left. It became very clear from a distance.

Most Americans, at least those in the vast middle, tend to deny we have a class system. I suspect the people at very top of the pyramid are all too aware of the class structure in America, but are far too polite and well-bred to mention it. The people on the very bottom are keenly aware of what they might even think of as a veritable "caste" system in America where they are all but unseen if not totally "untouchable," but they are poor and uneducated and nobody pays any attention to them, anyway. Our class hierarchy is sort of a dirty [big]little secret we all know about but nobody wants to admit.

If pressed, most people I know will say that they are "middle class."
I know people who are highly educated and (from my perspective) well-heeled professionals who think they are "middle class." I know some people whom I consider "poor" and "low class" who think they are "middle class." Shucks, my mother insists to this day our family is "middle class." She is dead wrong. My immediate family was solidly Blue Collar in every respect (except for my father's choice in reading material), which in my mind is one run below "middle class." I have a college education and work in a white collar job, but I have exceedingly "low class" tastes in most areas that "count." I think I inhabit the borderland between Blue Collar and White Collar America. I know which fork to use at a fancy dinner and I actually enjoy classical music, but I really hate all things "fancy." In most ways that matter, am anything but "middle class."

I guess on the one hand, I don't think the term "middle class" means much of anything in America.

How do you categorize "class" in a country like America. I don't like the "blue collar" v. "white collar" descriptors, because it seems to describe a manufacturing culture, which we are not any more. Personally, I rather like the word Bourgeoisie. In many ways America is the gold standard of a bourgeois nation. We prefer the term "middle class" because it sounds better, and because we can spell it. We don't know what bourgeois means, but it's French and it sounds kind of like an insult, so we're pretty sure it must not apply to us.

I think bourgeois describes Americans very well. We came out of the European aristocratic system; it should not surprise anyone that we have sort of ended up with our own version of it, albeit with all kinds of uniquely American aberrations. For the sake of clarity, however, I will stick to the more common "Upper," "White Collar" and "Blue Collar" designations even though I don't like them.

In the past few days, I've read several articles on "class" in America. On the one hand, I found far fewer articles on the subject than I expected. That is probably because this is not a subject Americans like to discuss. On the other, I was not surprised to find that people who ventured to write about it agree there most definitely is a class system. They differ greatly how to categorize the classes, or what they mean exactly. One thing they (and I) agree on is that one thing that sets America's class system apart from the Old World aristocratic system is that our levels of class are at least somewhat fluid. You can go up...

...And you can go down. The going down part is the aspect of our society that creates so much anxiety and fear -- especially in times like these. At least according to Wikipedia, it is one aspect of bourgeois culture that accounts for the emphasis on keeping up appearances. It occurs to me, also, that it may be a significant reason why Americans deny we have a class structure to begin with. If there is no class structure, we don't have to worry about "downward mobility."

I think that in America class is largely a function of how much money a person has, how they got the money, how long they have had it and what they do with it. Other factors include education level (particularly where the education is achieved), location of residence, choice of fashion and entertainment.

In European aristocratic society, class was considered rigid and very difficult (if not impossible) to overcome. In America, the class boundaries are fuzzy, fluid and hazy. But, they are there. Oh, dear Lord, are they ever there!

I have been thinking a lot about this topic lately in considering the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, and America's reactions to them.
I want to look at this election from the standpoint of socio-economic class. Warning: broad, sweeping generalizations to follow.

Obama I haven't read his books, but I know he is a mixed-race person, raised by a single mother and ultimately educated at Yale. He worked as an activist and then went into politics. He is now a Senator, which -- just as in ancient Rome -- puts him pretty much at the pinnacle of the class ladder. He's married to a Yale-educated lawyer who makes enough money to support the family in a very upper-crust life-style. Despite his common roots, Obama's going to be viewed by most people in America as a sort of "newly arrived" Upper Class person.

The true Patricians who've inhabited that class for generations see him as nouveau-riche and perhaps not to be taken seriously. Many people with dreams of social advancement see him as a role model. No small number of lower class racists consider him an uppity black who doesn't "know his place." In order to vote for him a lot of people will have to stretch a bit out of their comfort zone, crossing boundaries of class, education and race.

McCain McCain grew up as the son of an Admiral, Episcopalian, Annapolis educated. He was a Naval officer, a fighter pilot. He married very well, the second time anyway. He borders on Blue Blood, but McCain's own self-created "maverick" image and crotchety temperament may keep him out of the top rungs of the Upper Class.
Mrs. McCain's incredible commitment to charity plus her millions along with the his long tenure in the Senate keep him pretty high on the food chain. [I will note that Mrs. McCain strikes me as a very impressive woman. I find it interesting that irascible old dudes like Bob Dole and John McCain are married to incredible women like Elizabeth Dole and Cindy McCain... something to ponder another time.]

I think McCain is seen by almost everybody as a sort of "American everyman." I am not sure that was ever really true. Admiral's sons educated at Annapolis, serving decades in the Senate and married to heiresses, don't exactly live in my world. Still, he's got the "All American Boy" cred. It's impossible not to respect and admire the guy. It may be a little harder to like him due to his cantankerousness nature... but even that has a sort of Bad Boy charm. I think McCain's appeal crosses all class lines. People from any group could vote for him without too much of a stretch.

Biden may be the most quintessentially "self-made American" of all of the candidates. He is truly a product of "middle" America, with the added twist of having been a single father. Women ought to be lining up to vote for this this guy, what with his "Mr. Mom" experience. He knows from first-hand experience what working women are up against. He comes from the working class, but 30+ years in the Senate has bumped him up in the hierarchy. Sadly, his common roots show occasionally in what the press refers to as "verbal gaffs"... most of which strike me as "calling a spade a spade." Biden is seen by a lot of people as a "liberal, government insider." I think he's really a very deeply patriotic and passionately committed American, who just isn't very eloquent ... and who has a really, really, really pathetic barber.

By all rights, Biden should appeal to the middle and lower classes, which is where he came from, but unfortunately, he's hob-nobbed with the Washington insiders too long and he's just not all that inspiring. That may be why Obama chose him: he doesn't help a whole lot, but he doesn't hurt much either.

Palin is unquestionably, and flamboyantly, working class, bordering on Trailer Trash.

The Patricians must be cringing at the very thought of a woman like that being "a heartbeat from the presidency." I have a hard time understanding how some of the truly upper crust Republicans could tolerate her on the ticket. I know it sounds cynical, but I can't help but wonder whether, if McCain were to die in office, all of a sudden there would be a terrible scandal that would eliminate Palin and allow the next-in-line to assume the presidency. [Quite honestly, I hope to God that particular fix is in just in case the Republicans win.]

On the other hand, the evangelicals among the working class are all lathered up in support of her because "she's one of us."

That is where I get off the blue collar bus. I grew up in a blue collar environment. I was the first in my family to go to college. I grew up among the "salt-of-the-earth" good, upstanding, patriotic, Mom-and-apple pie Americans. We stood up when the flag went by, recited the pledge of allegiance every day in school, and bought Buddy Poppies on street corners from the VFW. [Hell, I've stood on a few street corners selling VFW Buddy Poppies!!] I love working class Americans. They are good and decent. They work hard. They love their kids. In Garrison Keillor's words, "They do what needs to be done." I never met one of them who was qualified to be President. That includes Sarah Palin.

Doing the math through this lens, the election looks like a toss up, perhaps leaning toward McCain. May the Lord protect and defend him......


Class In America - Time
People Like Us: Social Class in America - PBS

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