Righty: Until recently, class was society’s instrument for creating order and stability. Instead of jockeying for status and playing catch-up with our neighbors the way we do today, people lived according to their designated station. Everyone coexisted in harmony: the upper class patronized the tradesmen, and the tradesmen hired workers. The beauty of the old class system was that nobody had to feel inadequate about failing to achieve. The desperate status anxiety we see today is the direct result of lowered class boundaries. So is the decline of taste and manners. Eighty years ago men used to attend sporting events wearing jackets and ties. Today we dine out at fine restaurants in t-shirts and khakis. Everyone used to look to the upper class for pointers on the social graces. Now we have affluent suburban kids copying the style and lingo of ghetto “gangstas.” We can date the decline of Western Civilization to the overthrow of class distinctions sometime around the end of World War II. It’s been all downhill ever since.
Lefty: Good riddance to the rigid social hierarchy that kept talented people in their place for untold generations. Class was an evil that persisted only because it had persisted. Until the French Revolution, nobody challenged the injustice of a system that automatically favored the idle descendants of medieval knights over the hardworking peasantry and middle class. Today, thanks to the efforts of social progressives over the past two centuries, my family and I are able to send our older kids to private school and hire a full-time nanny to care for the baby. The disappearance of class has liberated all of society from bondage.
The New Moderate:
If both Righty and Lefty believe (as they seem to) that the class system is dead, they’re deluding themselves. Yes, manners have declined and class boundaries have blurred, but nobody with a sharp eye for distinctions can deny that we still sort people according to social rank. In fact, as economic pressures continue to split the middle class, like a great ice sheet, into upwardly mobile and downwardly mobile segments that drift inexorably northward and southward, we’ll be evolving into a two-tier society of haves and have-nots.
Our class distinctions, based solely on income, are already more pronounced than at any time since the Gilded Age, when millionaire robber barons presided over society and the average working chump labored for a dollar a day. But even the Gilded Age had its comfortable middle class with its clapboard houses and picket fences.
I grew up squarely in the middle of the mid-twentieth century middle class. We lived in a split-level house and survived modestly but securely on my father’s income. We attended the local public schools. My father drove a Pontiac and bought his clothes at Sears Roebuck even after he started earning a handsome salary. On special occasions we’d dine out at the local Howard Johnson’s. (Fondly do I remember those golden fried clams and peppermint ice cream cones.) Vacation meant the shore or the mountains, or occasionally an educational jaunt around New England or Virginia. No Caribbean island-hopping or African eco-tours for us. And we never knew what we were missing. This was the way most of America seemed to live at the time.
Whatever happened to that old middle class? As male yuppies mated with newly liberated female yuppies and both prospered in their careers, they departed for a favored land of nannies and prep schools. At the same time, the less fortunate middle class kids had to settle for McJobs at the local Blockbuster. Now that so many white-collar jobs are being outsourced to India or points beyond, it looks increasingly certain that these kids will never again enjoy the comforts of bourgeois life.
Our class divisions will grow even more distinct as high-achieving “haves” continue to merge their DNA with others of their ilk, producing a formidable superclass of genetically endowed achievers. The old upper class married for social respectability, which didn’t always translate into brains or talent. (Male preppies with formidable minds would often wed pretty but intellectually indifferent daughters of good families. And no doubt many a Bryn Mawr grad ended up with a hearty goofus on a trust fund.) By contrast, the new upper class marries to produce offspring with perfect SAT scores. Be very afraid.
If you want to see what America’s future superclass looks like, just scan the marriage announcements in the Sunday New York Times. These are the chosen ones — an amalgam of breeding, brains, education and achievement. Everyone else might as well move into trailers.
A large and stable middle class is essential to the well-being of any developed nation. Without it, our society will eventually consist of nobles and serfs — the surefire formula for a new Dark Age.
Summary: We’re kidding ourselves if we think the class system is dead in America. If anything, class distinctions will become even more pronounced as achievers marry achievers.