The American Middle Class


Immigrants to America never brought with them the idea that they were still European subjects. Nor were our small farmers peasants or serfs. Instead, the United States was the rare consensual government in history in which the middle class, in numbers and influence, defined the society and culture at large. Every man was to be a king, and so his home really was his castle.

You can see the modern result of such middle-class chauvinism manifested on the freeway in the huge Winnebago with chairs, bikes, and gadgets tacked onto its sides barreling to a national park — or by listening to the well-informed callers on talk radio who prove to be better informed than Ivy League students.

Elites hate jet skis, snowmobiles, and recreational vehicles in part because they reflect that so many have the wherewithal to have fun without the approval or sanction of their supposed betters.

The twin of such populist chauvinism has always been a unique informality lacking in most nations abroad. Americans are practical, commonsensical, and self-reliant. The middling classes usually avoid the European gullibility of periodically embracing all-encompassing doctrines and ideologies. They certainly never warmed to the patrón or the manor. The middle classes have found would-be Hitlers, Mussolinis, or Stalins more creepy than spellbinding.

Neither Marxism nor aristocracy caught on here, because upward mobility was more than just a free-market slogan. Americans have always been suspicious of their European ancestors’ ossified notions that merit was to be based on birth and inheritance rather than on natural talent, action, and achievement, or success and privilege defined by who your grandfather was.

So dominant is this ethos of unpretentiousness that even the blueblood and magnate often embrace the fashion, accent, and bearing of the middle class. The aristocratic Ivy Leaguer William F. Buckley famously announced, “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” Buckley did not mean just that he resented the overweening nonsense of the eastern liberal intelligentsia. He also perhaps was conceding that men of his own class would gladly admit that the common sense and bearings of the “average folks” had kept the country sane and balanced.

In this sometimes paradoxical view of privilege, Americans respect professors but would not wish to turn the country over to them. They admire the man who appears successful and rich enough to drive a Porsche, but also believe a Ford, Honda, or Chevy is a better barometer of steadiness and sanity — and a far better cost-to-benefit investment.

Americans, in their nonstop drive to “make something of themselves,” worship education, are impressed by professional titles, and strive to become affluent — but usually in a context where such resulting success is the result of hard work and natural talent, and thus should be emulated rather than resented as an unfair entitlement of royalty and aristocracy.

Americans lack the idea of knighthood. They bristle even at the motorcades of their high officials. To cut into an airport line or pull rank bothers citizens, who have convinced themselves that no one is better than they.

This ascendency of the middle class is due in part to the classical legacies of independent agrarians, in part to the efforts of the Constitution to promote a natural equality of opportunity, in part to the confidence that America by design would be different from European class and monarchy, British imperial aristocracy, and Spanish manorialism, and in part simply to the often wild marriage of freedom and capitalism.

So-called elites may mock the middle class and deride it as “deplorable” and “irredeemable” in its culture and tastes, but usually the middle class has had the last laugh.

This article appears as “The Middle Class ” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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