Last week cultural historian Henry Allen published a short piece in the Wall Street Journal. Allen has written books on the 20th Century, and says that in previous periods of history there would be no question what period you represented if you were plopped down in any subsequent period. For instance, if you were from the Twenties, you would instantly be recognized as a historical type in the Fifties, or the Eighties. Your historical “home” would be known most likely within ten, but certainly within twenty, years. This sort of identification, Allen writes, has disappeared for the past two decades. A typical person from 1993 now looks almost exactly like someone from 2013.
Allen’s point is that something has happened, he’s not sure what. But it has left him feeling uneasy. Some kind of natural progress seems to have ground to a halt.
Several letters to the editor of the WSJ followed where writers attempted to define a cause for this. They largely focused on the presence of a global cultural stasis that is closely tied to a now-hegemonic secular progressivism. It’s often said that around 1992 America took a holiday from history with the Clinton administration. America, and much of the West, closed in on itself and became self-absorbed. Once existential threats such as the Soviet Union were gone from the world stage, everybody went to the beach and didn’t come back.
That might be the case, but I think there’s something else at work, Whether it’s cause or effect, I’m not sure. Let’s call it correlation. It’s the decline of the middle class. In 1970, the middle class accounted for over 60% of adults, while today it accounts for just 50%. A strong, growing middle class is the bellwether of a prospering society, and we appear to be moving in the wrong direction. Those making between $40K and $120K define the middle class today, and there are fewer and fewer people in that category. This means that numbers at both ends of the bell curve, the poor and the rich, are growing.
Two-tiered societies, rich and poor, are typical of regressive, authoritarian societies. Socialism tends toward this with its leveling of classes, while communism positively supercharges the process. On the other hand, a vibrant, expanding middle class is a bulwark against authoritarianism and the poverty that typically follows.
Many large American cities, by the way, are now two-tiered, with wealthy elites and upper-middle class unions at one end, and inner-city poor on the other, with relatively few in the middle. Charles Murray, in his book “Coming Apart,” chronicles the story of America’s new class divide. Ironically, it is cities where you will find liberals who pontificate on the evils of “Two Americas.”
They seem unaware that their values and political preferences lie at the center of this social transformation.
As President Obama and Democrats move the country further and further to the left, one of the casualties will be the middle class, a class which historically is identified with self-sufficiency and personal liberty. We as a culture should be celebrating the small businessmen and women who provide most of the jobs and wealth in our country, but instead we are punishing them through high taxation and regulation such as Obamacare. No wonder many of them are sliding into a lower social bracket.
It is the young, those between twenty-four and thirty-nine, who are paying the highest price for the progressive policies that are despoiling their future. That they continue to vote Democrat is one of the disconnects of our time.
So if, as Henry Allen writes, we are all looking more and more alike and seeming not to be going anywhere, it’s because that’s exactly what is happening. Even as the country gorges itself on the bread and circuses of the technological age and sways to a popular culture of rebellion, most of us are becoming poorer and plainer, and we don’t even know it.