By the 1970s, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once observed, “America’s strong, striving middle class began drifting away from us.”
In “Promised Land,” David Stebenne, a professor of history and law at Ohio State University, and the author of biographies of Arthur Larson and Arthur Goldberg, attempts to explain the rise, dominance and precipitous decline of the middle class. His analysis is embedded in a survey of American popular culture, domestic and foreign policy between the Great Depression and the social and political upheavals of 1968 that relies on secondary sources for its evidence and covers largely familiar ground.
Stebenne acknowledges that the middle class, a term that describes “a state of mind and a way of life” as well as a level of income, was neither monolithic nor completely homogenous. And “Promised Land” demonstrates that white males benefited from middle-class life far more than women or African-Americans. That said, his generalizations about the middle class are often vague, imprecise and open to question.
Following the “Roosevelt Recession” of 1937, Stebenne writes, for example, the middle class “no longer argued about when or how the problems would be solved, but if they could be solved at all.” Middle-class Americans, he asserts, were “more nationalistic, hawkish and patriotic than either richer or poorer Americans.”
John F. Kennedy, he maintains, was more supportive of the policies that had made the middle class the majority than Richard Nixon; but then he adds that Kennedy’s inexperience in international affairs “put more strain on the mechanisms that had made a predominantly middle-class country.”
Stebenne contends that “much of the middle class” resisted racial desegregation and affirmative action, programs to assist the poor, funding to improve the arts and humanities and protect the environment. Urban riots, he declares, posed an existential threat to the “tidy middle-class model.”
Because the incomes of poor people were so low, Stebenne suggests, they “didn’t concern themselves with the middle-class mantra of gradual upward mobility and greater economic security through settling down early and incrementally accumulating savings and a nest egg in owning a house.”
These days, of course, few Americans disagree that the income and influence of the middle class has shrunk and inequality has increased dramatically during the last half-century.
I suspect, however, that a consensus is less likely to emerge in support of Prof. Stebenne’s conclusions that the rise of the middle class left poor Americans “even further behind”; the male breadwinner model helped the middle class expand “but created a new set of problems for women and men”; middlebrow culture’s dominance increased the marginalization and alienation of other groups; and economic growth brought prosperity to the middle class and environmental pollution to everyone.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
By: David Stebenne.
Publisher: Scribner, 336 pages, $28.