America’s election campaign has opened up a new conversation about inequalityby Diane Roberts / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
The haves—and the have yachts: only 8 per cent of American men born into poverty make it into the top 20 per cent income bracket
In America, agonising over race is a national pastime. Gender gets a good airing as well. Class, however, is a touchy subject. We cling to the cherished myth of the meritocracy which insists that class does not matter, that anyone can go from a log cabin to the White House. Talk of class sounds unpatriotic, Marxist, European. During a presidential debate earlier this year, Mitt Romney tried to make a point about the middle class, only to be scolded by Rick Santorum: “There are no classes in America,” Santorum said. To use such terminology is “to buy into the class warfare arguments of Barack Obama.”
Yet class does exist in America. And now, when the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the top 1 per cent of households has a net worth 225 times greater than the median household—the biggest gap the nation has ever seen—we are forced to confront it. Concern about class, inequality and social mobility run through this year’s presidential campaign. It is there in the Occupy Wall Street protestors’ slogan “1 per cent versus the 99 per cent”; it’s there in the anxiety that the American dream may have ended; it’s there, even, in the chatter about America’s new favourite TV show: Downton Abbey.
What do Americans mean when they talk about class? Wealth is part of it, but not all. Former president George W Bush, whose forbears came over on the Mayflower, would be regarded as more upper class than, say, film director George Lucas (whose parents ran a stationery shop in Modesto, California), even though Lucas’s net worth is far greater. In a 2005 essay for the New York Times, Diane McWhorter, the Pulitzer prize-winning author, wrote, “The part of Birmingham, Alabama, I grew up in was so class-conscious that a boyfriend broke up with me in ninth grade because my telephone exchange was not the socially obligatory 871 or 879. My lapse in standing was the misfortune of being from the nouveau pauvre side of what passed for an elegant family there.”
The anthropologist W Lloyd Warner succinctly summed up the American attitude to class. “We are proud of those facts of American life that fit the pattern we are taught,” he said. “But somehow we are often ashamed…