Looking back on the year now ending, I have been struck by a disconnect that has entered American language.
Through the presidential campaign and now in the fiscal cliff fight, we have heard about “the middle class.” The president – to the cheers of the media — tells us he is for the middle class and, to prove it, he will tax the rich, if only Republicans let him.
My sense of disconnect is with the term “middle class.”
For decades, when pollsters asked Americans to what class they belonged, virtually all – rich, poor, in between — responded, “middle class.” Now, at least if you ask the president and most of Washington, “middle class” is people making less than $250,000 a year, the level of income at which Democrats want higher tax rates to kick in.
The Washington meaning can be measured and validated with economic data. Now, and this is the disconnect of which I am talking, it is becoming the norm of popular discourse. So why did most of us refer to ourselves, and the nation, for so long as middle class?
Academics offer numerous explanations. Mainly their reasons come down to, the poor are delusional and the rich are trying to cover their tracks. But in this season of peace on earth, goodwill to all, I have discovered, I believe, a different story — and from an unexpected source. Call it the Ghost of Christmases Long, Long Ago and Far, Far Away.
This year, besides attending Christmas Eve service, exchanging presents, gathering with friends at dinners and parties, calling family in other cities, I have watched episodes of a popular British series, now on PBS, “Downton Abbey.” My wife unveiled the first season’s DVD set (the third season will air soon) just as the holidays began. We will watch the episodes together, she said, both because it is a terrific series (as it turns out to be) and because you (i.e., I) need to be more in touch with popular culture.
If you know no more about “Downton Abbey” than did I, think “Upstairs Downstairs” with two twists. Twist one, it is set not in London, but on an English country estate. Twist two, it includes as a central figure, a character absent from its iconic 1971-75 predecessor – a middle-class lawyer, a distant cousin of the central family, who by accident of death and law is to inherit the property and the fortune that goes with it on the passing of the aristocrat who presides over it.
Here is the point. The middle-class lawyer has personal qualities different from the others in the program – qualities that the script and performances make so evident as to indicate they are depicting an understood social type. He is independent by virtue of education, ability and hard work. He has broken from his father and mother’s occupations, which were in medicine. He is uncomfortable with displays of deference from the servants and with assumptions of privilege by the very decent patriarch and his family. He has ambition even as he is egalitarian.
Does this character sound familiar? Perhaps it would be that, besides being of the British middle class, there is another term for him: “American.”
Here is the flash I had watching the episodes. Since our founding, a large majority of Americans have traced their roots to the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe where middle class meant what that character embodies. Many, perhaps most, who migrated to this land and stayed, harbored the same determination to make one’s own way in life, independent of the past. Doing so wasn’t impossible from where they came, but it was hard – and not admired. In America, these virtues and the human dignity that went with them were not the exceptions, but the rule – and preserving and extending them was a national mission.
“European travelers who passed through America,” wrote historian Henry Adams in his history of the nation from 1800 to 1816, “noticed that everywhere, in the White House at Washington and in log-cabins beyond the Alleghanies…, every American, from Jefferson and Gallatin down to the poorest squatter, seemed to nourish an idea that he was doing what he could to overthrow the tyranny which the past had fastened on the human mind.”
This is what the ghost of Christmases long ago on other shores told me. It is not money but a universal attitude about our common humanity that we Americans mean in saying we are “middle class.” At this turn of the year, I pray that, despite the new disconnect in our language, that truth remains fixed in our hearts, our minds and our souls.