What do Americans really think? A radically divergent assertion about attitude

March 01, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Predominantly, the American left, dwindling down to a precious few, sees the nation as damned by meanness of spirit, by failure of government, and by the oafishness of the masses. The right sees Americans as flabby of principle and personal industry, self-indulgent and - well, liberal. Many pundits see America as torn by internal conflicts, yet indifferent to potentially catastrophic woes and vices.

Now comes a respected social scientist - a professor, for Goodness sake! - saying the whole lot of them are dead wrong. In a book that should be considered vitally important, he says that the vast majority of Americans are doing just fine, thank you very much, that they are enjoying personal peace and are behaving in overpoweringly responsible manners.

What's more, he dismisses fellow academics, the press and intellectuals and analysts in general as captives of a trade whose main purpose is to imagine conflicts. Blinded by their own self-importance, they shun reality, following their crafts' imperative to manufacture impending doom.

The book is "One Nation, After All: What Middle-Class Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, the Right, the Left and Each Other," by Alan Wolfe (Viking, 358 pages, $24.95). Wolfe is a well-established sociologist who teaches at Boston University and who writes much in the serious popular prints: the New Yorker, the New Republic and the like.

Some readers might take my description as overstating the core of this moderate, methodical and mild-mannered volume. I think not. It is texturally bland. But it is a radical, even incendiary, piece of work.

And a wise one.

Tolerant, moderate

Here is one of a dozen articulations of what Wolfe argues to be central to the character of Americans today: "Reluctant to pass judgment, they are tolerant to a fault, not about everything - they have not come to accept homosexuality as normal and they intensely dislike bilingualism - but about a surprising number of things, including rapid transformations in the family, legal immigration, multicultural education, and the separation of church and state."

And another: "Moderation and tolerance - and appreciation of the modest virtues - are the bedrock moral principles of the American middle class: on most controversial issues, Americans instinctively try to find the centrist position between two extremes and attempt to carve out private spaces in which people can do what they want so long as others do what they want."

So what about the conflicts often so loudly trumpeted as setting neighbor against neighbor, region against region, flaming ethnic hostilities?

Well, Wolfe argues, in the main those clashes "do not take place between camps of people; instead, they take place within most individuals." He finds middle-class Americans - the vast preponderance of American citizens - not to be separated into confrontational interest blocs. Instead, he finds those competing interests working themselves out, patiently and skeptically, inside individual consciousnesses.

This is not a package of personal opinion. Wolfe set about, with funding from the Russell Sage Foundation, to conduct "the Middle-Class Morality Project," the primary source of original information in the book.

In 18 months of research, he examined 200 people clustered in eight communities, two each in Massachusetts, Georgia, Oklahoma and California.

His assistant, Maria Poarch, lived three to six months in each place, and he visited frequently, directing exhaustive interviewing. He combined ethnographic and survey methods - a marriage of deep anecdotal and broad statistical techniques. The result was 3,886 pages of transcriptions.

Does the distillation represent the opinions of all of middle-class America? Who can say? But Wolfe does insist, convincingly, that 90 percent or more of the American population declares itself to be middle- class, and that the populations of his samples were demographically representative.

Deep distrusts

The book is a consoling document. It adds up to a declaration that Americans are by and large solid, responsible, decent, thoughtful and skeptical of extremes.

He finds deep and increasing distrust of major elements of power: labor unions, corporations, government itself. And he sees much of this in an alienation from the political structure of the country - citing widely agreeing statistics that some three-quarters of Americans don't believe that public officials act in their interests.

Wolfe's own values and vantage point come clearly forward, amid the data and interpretation. Heartily, he states: "Yet as important as virtues are to middle-class Americans, it is just as important that we realize them modestly. Nonjudgmentalism holds that the pursuit of virtue ought not be taken to the point of condemning others as lacking goodness because they make a mistake."

He sees much good, little evil, mainly flat fact. He celebrates the "nonjudgmental" character of his subjects. But I felt he could - and should - have been far more judgmental himself in this book, which offers little public policy guidance.

Still, there is huge power in his work: He makes a strong case that America is undergoing historic social change. And he offers a genuinely radical perception - that these changes are not happening in or because of traditional institutions - government, education, public leadership. Rather, he asserts, they are occurring very privately, within the hearts and minds of individual DTC Americans, as they increasingly distance themselves from those institutions.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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