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Why Does Everyone in America Think They’re Middle Class?

The “Middle Class Nation” and “American Exceptionalism” found each other late, and under specific circumstances.

... of the work of Marx and Engels, posited that access to land set the United States apart from class-ridden Europe, with Turner adding that the frontier itself made for democratic practices. However, for Marx, Engels, and Turner, this process had an end, as frontiers ran out and troubles lay ahead.

... of the work of Marx and Engels, posited that access to land set the United States apart from class-ridden Europe, with Turner adding that the frontier itself made for democratic practices. However, for Marx, Engels, and Turner, this process had an end, as frontiers ran out and troubles lay ahead.

The precise term “American exceptionalism” came much later and amidst rich irony. One recent account has it originating from Stalin, who in 1929 was searching for a name for a heresy within the world Communist movement he dominated. Jay Lovestone, a US labor leader, led a tendency inside the Communist Party, with his faction arguing in the late 1920s that new strategies were necessary because US workers were not ready for revolution. Stalin branded this deviation as “American exceptionalism,” and Lovestone, arguing his corner, did use the phrase “middle class” to describe elements to be targeted in party appeals.

The most famous Cold War intellectual to take up what made the United States special, Louis Hartz, argued in 1955 in his incredibly ambitious volume, The Liberal Tradition in America, that lacking a feudal order against which to rebel, the United States could only generate limited traditions of revolt and even of social democracy. Hartz so fully embraced the idea that the United States was hardwired against socialist movements that he is often mistakenly remembered as a champion of the glories of American exceptionalism. He is better understood as a radical writing sadly and with deep awareness of Marxism. Liberal Tradition’s one use of “exceptionalism”—the term “American exceptionalism” does not appear—refers to the debates among Marxists in the 1930s.

Hartz does use “middle class” centrally, though far less frequently than “bourgeois,” as the goal is to discuss bourgeois revolutions and their ideas, more than class structures. Far from seeking to ground exceptional national glory in the middle class, Hartz stressed the limitations of both that class and the nation. “The Americans,” he lamented, “though models to all the world in the middle-class way of life, lacked the passionate middle-class consciousness which saturated the liberal thought of Europe.”

The “middle class nation” and “American exceptionalism” found each other late, and under specific circumstances. As the economic indices showing stagnating wages and soaring inequality have increasingly challenged both notions since 1970, the view that the United States is the product of their marriage has only gained political currency. Especially over the past quarter century, the reflexive response to middle-class decline has been to promise to defend the middle class and, through it, the nation. When Burton Bledstein began his valuable 1976 history of the middle class with the words, “From the 1840s until the present, the idea of the middle class has been central to the history of American social attitudes,” Cold War politics animated the over-reading involved in that assertion. The ersatz ubiquity that Bledstein assumed across space and time—one that led the historian Loren Baritz to liken the study of the middle class to “searching for air”—fed in particular on the American exceptionalist certainties of Bledstein’s next sentence: “No other national identity has been so essentially concerned with this one idea.”

When Ronald Reagan established the potency of the direct invocation of “American exceptionalism” electorally in the 1980s and Bill Clinton the power of direct appeals to middle-class dreams in the 90s, the two came to prosper together among politicians and pundits. In 1996, the eminent centrist ...