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Classes In America

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So, here’s the thing–I sort of agree with Robert that source of income is more important than amount in determining political commitment, but I don’t agree with his source.

First, let’s be clear–there are definitely classes in America, and  I’m not talking about economic classes, although they exist, too.

It’s the cultural classes that matter in the long run, and in more ways than we realize.

There’s the American upper class, to begin with, which consists of people who have money, but don’t make it.   Or, if they make it, they hide the fact as well as they can.  The culturally upper class have no use for work, and they tend to have nothing but amused contempt for people who “slog away” at things.  Up until the last fifteen or twenty years, most of these people were guaranteed a place in the proper Ivy, Seven Sisters or  Little Three schools on the basis of family legacies alone, so they didn’t bother to study a lot to get the grades to get in.  And once they got there, they didn’t bother to study a lot then.  George W. Bush is culturally upper class–a gentleman’s C was good enough, and the real things to concentrate on are certain specific kinds of sports (tennis, downhill skiing, horses) and, very often, a lot of serious drinking.

The American upper middle class consists of “educated professionals”–but only certain kinds of educations and certain kinds of professions “count.”   These are the people who, if they went to one of the national prep schools, got their on stellar grades and  SSAT scores, and who ran into the upper class with a kind of shock.  “There are two kinds of people here,” a tour guide at Taft told my older son when he was looking at high schools, “Rich people and smart people.”

To the  American upper middle class, intelligence and education are everything.  They’re doctors, lawyers, accountants with the big national firms, psychologists,  professors at certain universities (Yale, yes, Mattatuck Community College, no), research scientists, journalists in the national media, and a few other things.

At sixty, they’ll still remember their  SAT scores, and their rank in their high school class.   Most of them have postgraduate degrees–again, from only a certain set of schools and only in a certain set of professional areas.  An MBA is fine if it’s from Wharton or Harvard, but a  PhD in education is  ALWAYS unacceptable even if it does come from Harvard.  

Most of the educated upper middle class works in the private ssctor–the public sector doesn’t pay enough money–but in specific parts of the private sector.  They don’t run widgets factories in New Jersey.

Almost all these people vote Democratic, and they do it for two reasons–because social issues are far more important to them than economic ones, and because the Republican Party has done a bang-up job of marketing itself as the Party of the local yokels, all those people these people happily left behind when their grades bought them a ticket into what they consider to be a far better world.  

The American middle class consists of white collar workers, people who work in middle and low level management jobs in offices and are paid by the year instead of by the hour.  These tend to be the swing voters, because in fact what they want from politics is practical approaches to immediate problems.

Also included in this group are the owners of mid-sized businesses.   You can tell the difference between them and the upper middle class in the emphasis they place on education–the middle class wants its children to go to college “so they can get a good job.”   There is little understanding of or even acceptance of the idea that knowledge is important for its own sake or that the purpose of education should be something other than practical training.

They use the local public or parochial schoolsand send the kids to the state unversity, but usually to the flagship campus to spend four years “living away,” which is an experience they think everybody should have.

The American lower middle class and working class are largely the same, but they’re divided by source of income–the lower middle class owns small businesses, the working class works for an hourly wage.

Both public school teachers and nurses tend to belong to this category, even though public school teachers get paid salaries and, in some places, those salaries can be quite large.  

Education degrees, however, are notorious for being intellectually vacant and academically useless.  Education majors typically have the lowest entering credentials of any students on any university campus.   These are the people who tormented the hell out of the people who are not part of the upper middle class, especially since they were almost always stupider than their students and not good at handling it.

The lower middle class, including those public school teachers, tends to be sociall conservative.  In fact, every working public school teacher I know–and I know a couple of dozen of them–is a Republican. 

On the local level, of course, they vote for whoever will vote for more money for schools, but on the local level that doesn’t shake out by party as much as it might on the national level.  On the national level, they hate the No Child Left Behind Act, but they’d hate anything that required them to meet a prescribed standard.  These are people who generally did not do that well in school, and who think intellectual demands are largely “unfair.”

The lower class, of course, consists of people on welfare, or the street, and that’s a complicated issue on its own.

But the American upper middle class gets shafted big time by Democrats, if what you’re looking at is economics.   When Clinton raised taxes, he didn’t raise them on “rich” people.  He raised them on those doctors and lawyers making 250,.000 and then dropped the rate again after half a million–he targeted educated professionals precisely. 

What’s more, an incredible number of these people are philosophically libertarian.

They’re just not going to vote for a Party that makes Sarah Palin–dropped g’s, just-folks demeanor, sketchy knowledge of just about anything she’s asked–a national figure.

Written by janeh

February 16th, 2009 at 7:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Classes In America'

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  1. The last figure I heard, the National Education Association (ie the K-12 teachers’ union) was about 3/4 registered Democrats. NEA giving is deeply Democratic, and NEA policy statements–tell me why a teachers union needs an abortion policy?–practically define the left end of American liberalism. “I know a bunch of Republican teachers” rates with “no one I know voted for Nixon.” It’s called sampling error–though Connecticut may buck the national trend. And no, I’m not confusing my NEAs.

    I’d also watch the net figure on money. What Clinton took away with one hand, he and his colleagues gave back with the other. The John Edwards element of the ABA does quite well out of Democratic Party policies, and I don’t think the APA has much to complain about in a system which keeps throwing “mental illness” into the same pot as physical suffering, even when the mental condition can’t be consistently defined or diagnosed–and then demanding states and private insurance policies play along. Now if you owned a small factory somewhere, and were making $250 to $500K–but we already agreed that that sort of people just weren’t good liberals.

    As for a philosophical libertarianism which doesn’t include voting, campaigning or contributing, I rate that right up there with a spiritualism or religiosity which doesn’t insist you do anything you didn’t already want to do.

    It either shows up in behavior, or it’s vapor.


    16 Feb 09 at 9:13 am

  2. I can’t comment on US classes or taxes since I stopped worrying about them in 1971 when I moved to Australia. But there is a saying here that if you make enough money then paying income tax is optional.

    There comes a point where its worth while to hire good accountants and tax lawyers. So “soak the rich” doesn’t work.


    16 Feb 09 at 6:10 pm

  3. “There comes a point where its worth while to hire good accountants and tax lawyers. So “soak the rich” doesn’t work.”

    What John said. But it works at the level politicians want it to work, ie at the next election. Those who are impressed by “soak the rich” rhetoric are too stupid to think beyond the surface attraction of the idea, and that’s exactly why politicians and their running dogs use such rhetoric. They have no interest whatsoever in actually targetting the people who
    butter their bread, ie those really wealthy people who are the big party donors.

    In Australia, few teachers would ever publicly admit to voting conservative. They would be ostracised by their colleagues and such an admission would probably amount to career suicide. The Teacher Unions are without exception extremely left wing and very militant.


    17 Feb 09 at 4:34 pm

  4. the middle class wants its children to go to college “so they can get a good job.” There is little understanding of or even acceptance of the idea that knowledge is important for its own sake or that the purpose of education should be something other than practical training.

    This reminds me of something John Adams was reputed to have said. It wss something like:

    I study war so that my son can study farming so that his son can study law so that his son can study History.


    17 Feb 09 at 8:21 pm

  5. Well, by Jane’s definition as a small business owner, and the daughter of wage slaves, I’m socially lower middle class.

    I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why. I have a college degree (from a small state college, admittedly), and my husband has 3 Masters degrees. We don’t play the lottery, we save our money and have zero credit debt. We expect to send our children to college (whether they intend to go is another matter). We vote independently, mostly fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

    I grew up lower middle class. I know what that is like and the values and interests the lower middle class have. In fact, when I was growing up our family on both sides were staunch auto-worker union folks in Detroit, and all our neighbors were very similar, though we weren’t the good Catholics all the Italian and Polish neighbors were. My dad was the first in the family to take college courses. I was the first to graduate. I am most certainly not there, not in that mindset and not with those values any more.

    While I have no argument with the idea that the US is a stratified society, the fact is that it’s a much more mobile society than any other class-based one I can think of. One can’t move into the absolute upper tiers of society freely, given, but then one can’t become a Peer of England by making lots of money either.

    We’ve carefully extracted ourselves from the culturally lower middle class by engaging in activities and entertaining values from other classes, and I submit that anyone who wants to do the same, can. As long as they are willing to give up the values of their old social class and embrace the values of the class they aspire to.

    Not that I expect the Cabots and the Rockefellers would welcome my son as a suitor for one of their daughters. But I can *live* an upper or even an upper-upper middle class lifestyle if I want to put forth the effort to make that much money. And even without that, I can enjoy art, philanthropy, and the elite snobbery of criticizing everyone else’s choices in home decor and fashion. Ahhh. The Good Life.


    17 Feb 09 at 11:00 pm

  6. I didn’t think I had much to say to this as my experience was so different. I suppose we must have some upper class people in Canada, but the only people I know or have heard of who have ‘amused contempt’ for striving are a certain subset of those on social assistance, when discussing their relatives among the working poor. Our teachers’ unions – certainly the one I knew best – is probably a bit left wing, as are a lot of teachers – but by no means as much so as described here. I think Lymaree is basically saying that she can be culturally if not economically upper middle class if she wants, which I quite understand.

    I think my understanding of the fluidity of classes is a bit different. I once suprised someone (I don’t know why) by saying that one thing that suprised me when I started university was how many people were the first in their families to attend university. (I was second generation, really, both my parents attended a university). But that wasn’t seen as changing cultural class lines at all. In fact, there was a feeling that if you couldn’t be at least polite to those of your relatives and old friends who didn’t read much or share any of your new interests, you were ‘getting above yourself’ which was bad. It was fine and in fact a considerable source of pride if you got an education and a nice office job and went out to the theatre etc,. but not if you refused to attend family events or were rude or dismissive to Cousin Jethro who had finally got a job at the drive-in (conversely, Cousin J. would come in for criticism if he didn’t handle his money responsibly). I gather from earlier posts that Jane’s experience was considerably different.

    Getting more money didn’t seem all that relevant. People seemed to take one of two approaches – people raised poor either had as a primary motivation the desire that their children would have all the toys they didn’t, or that money was a mere tool and should be spent on housing food education etc rather than on lots and lots of toys. Both groups seemed to be in the same social group – they just tried more or less successfully not to sneer at the excess/lack of toys in their respective homes.

    So I see class as rather fluid, but fluid in the sense that I can and do have people of varying economic AND social classes among my friends and relationships and casual aquaintances. And I don’t see moving from one class to another as necessarily picking up or dropping all the characteristics of one.

    On a side note, after a very mild winter, really, all things considered, we now have a Winter Storm. It is not a Blizzard, although winds are expected to hit 100 kph and anywhere from 10-25 cm of snow, depending on which forecast you believe. But it’s not cold enough for a blizzard. I think the weather forecasters have a special version of the English language!

    At least I don’t have to go to work until 11, but since things are supposed to peak just after that, I might have the whole day off!


    18 Feb 09 at 7:07 am

  7. One correction to my comments above: My family and environment growing up was not lower middle class. It was solidly working class, by Jane’s definitions.

    Cheryl, your comment about not getting “above oneself” is very true. Even if one didn’t change any attitude about family, merely attending higher education made one suspect among certain segments that one was getting uppity. “Too good for us.”

    One time I suggested to my son’s father (after we were divorced) that we send our son, who was scary smart, to the local Country Day School. He needed the challenge. The feedback from his family was that associating with those rich folks would give him ideas (the implication being they wouldn’t be *good* ideas) and that public school was good enough. This from people who had sacrificed to send their own son to law school. !!! So I moved into the best public school district I could find, since I couldn’t afford the private school on my own.

    But I always was aware that I had to enjoy my family on *their* terms, that talking about some of my own interests, especially the constant reading, would lead to no good.


    18 Feb 09 at 1:14 pm

  8. I usually describe my family background as middle class, and leave it like that – it’s closest to accurate, but you wouldn’t have to scratch very deep to hit working class. Socially, I’m beginning to think just about my entire home province, not just my old home, are solidly working class! Well, except for a few whose country ‘cottages’ are bigger and nicer than everyone else’s only house, and who can consider a Swiss boarding school for a wayward child.

    My own family encouraged reading and education, although I knew plenty of kids in school whose aim was to get a good job with the company (if male) and get any job until marriage (if female). And most of them probably had good lives, at least until the Company moved out of town. I knew someone in university whose entire (and very successful) university career was with the help of student loans and in the face of a family who thought she should have dropped out of high school and gotten a job in store to bring some money into the household. A belief that education was wasteful and unnecessary, was common enough

    As for your last comment – I’ve always found that both family and friends generally have to be enjoyed, if not entirely on their terms, at least with the knowledge that there has to be give and take – I don’t expect them to share all my enthusiasms; they don’t expect me to share all theirs, and we try to find some common ground in between. We don’t always succeed, but it’s usually an attempt to draw me into some kind of drama that causes me not to bother with continuing even a superficial relationship – not whether or not someone thinks I’m stuck up or something because I have more education than they do.


    18 Feb 09 at 2:39 pm

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