Farewell, Falwell; Bye, Buchanan: Moderation Chic Hits the Middle Class

Has there ever been a sweeter moment, O fans of irony in the rough, to read about “The Middle-Class Morality Project”? Alan Wolfe, a professor of sociology and political science at Boston University, used a grant from Manhattan’s Russell Sage Foundation to go find out what America’s middle class “really thinks.” He peppered with questions 200 suburbanites from Atlanta, Boston, Tulsa and San Diego and subjected them as well to a standard survey-during the O.J. Simpson trial, shortly after the Oklahoma bombing, a moment you’d be tempted to call divisive, long before anyone thought to yoke the words “zipper” and “gate.” Could anyone, back then, have predicted the President’s pants-down approval rating? Mr. Wolfe comes very close.

Reduced to sound-bite summary, the findings of the Middle-Class Morality Project look wonderfully bland, like those headlines in the “Science Times” section: “Survey Finds Sleep Relieves Fatigue.” Mr. Wolfe has discovered that middle-class Americans take their morality very seriously and yet hesitate before imposing it on others. They prefer what Mr. Wolfe calls “morality writ small.” Average Americans, he argues, cling to a modest bundle of beliefs, conveniently malleable and accumulated “anecdotally,” which they reshape to accommodate evolving circumstance (you know-bimbo eruptions and the like). “Whatever middle-class morality is these days,” he writes, “it is neither puritanical nor judgmental; modest virtues do not allow much room for finger-pointing.”

No surprise, you say, that here in the birthplace of pragmatism (hatched in 1898, according to Genuine Reality , Linda Simon’s useful new biography of philosopher William James) we should witness the emergence, a century later, of a pragmatic middle class. Mr. Wolfe’s ” reasonable majority” is breathtakingly levelheaded: “Above all moderate in their outlook on the world.” Remember when, only a few years ago, it seemed that the religious right and the Republican Party were thundering absolutes with the apparent backing of an angry, absolutist middle-class majority? Remember when “family values” looked like the banner of a new, improved version of the Spanish Inquisition?

Like all sociologists, Mr. Wolfe is a careful qualifier. He reminds us that on “moral matters, there is no unanimity in America.” And he feeds us a fat exception to the general rule: Though the “pragmatic, everyday, nonutopian … American creed” is mostly tolerant, the middle class does not tolerate homosexuality. This unhappy finding, which he previewed in February in a short New York Times Magazine article, has a curious validating function. The idea that undisguised antigay prejudice should be acceptable in a land where racism and sexism, once legally sanctioned, have been swept under the carpet, seems at once appalling and plausible. The bad news makes the bland news look familiar and true; it helps squelch the suspicions that sociology always stirs (in me, anyway). Mr. Wolfe is not trying to force-fit a tidy theory over the untidy mass of middle America.

He favors a method that aims somewhere between the ethnographer’s “soft” focus-group approach and “hard” census data. His small sample on its own wouldn’t amount to a persuasive poll, but combined with in-depth interviews, it carries sufficient weight. He’s a little vague about who the middle class might be-people with a certain ” mentalité ,” he writes, who are “not too poor to be considered dependent on others but not too rich,” either. But of course we’re all a little vague about class in this country. Mr. Wolfe cites the ur-American statistic: “At no time between 1972 and 1994 did more than 10 percent of the … population classify themselves as either lower class or upper class.” As a nation, we huddle to the center.

Most of One Nation, After All isn’t worth the bother. Mr. Wolfe quotes liberally from his interviews, and, as one snobbishly expects, the responses of 200 supposedly representative suburbanites are in and of themselves utterly uninteresting. Here and there a flash of vernacular wit, like the Cobb County, Ga., resident commenting on civic obligation: “If you sit there eating bonbons and watching As the World Turns , the world is going to turn without you.” Unless you have a professional interest in how sociologists work their voodoo, or you’re hot to contest a specific segment of the Middle-Class Morality Project findings, you need only read the first and last chapters-the first to take measure of Mr. Wolfe as he clears his throat, the last to get the gist in summary and study the implications of “morality writ small.”

Split by the culture wars into hostile factions, American intellectuals do their best to stake out ideologically consistent positions. Traditionalists pledge allegiance to God and family and country; modernists and postmodernists happily offer to reconfigure each element of that holy trinity. Middle-class Americans, says Mr. Wolfe, “distrust ideological thinking”; they see no problem with keeping a foot in each camp. They combine “professions of loyalty to the essential truths of transcendental moral principles” (the sure-fire way to warm a conservative’s heart) with “determined revisions” of those essential truths “to account for contemporary circumstances”-a liberal’s delight.

According to Mr. Wolfe, the middle class practices what Claude Lévi-Strauss called ” bricolage .” Its morality is slapped together on the spot, local and perishable-not for export. The middle class is reluctant to judge. This troubles Mr. Wolfe: He invokes the granddaddy of sociology, Émile Durkheim, who warned that “moral mediocrity” would be the sad byproduct of moral libertarianism. Mr. Wolfe feels that “middle-class Americans might be better off with a little more Kantian backbone in their moral assembly kit.” These worries notwithstanding, he presents morality writ small in a positive light, as a hedge against extremism and partisan excess.

Though he gives no sign of recognizing the fact, Mr. Wolfe has described a middle class that resembles, in its hazy outlines, our very pragmatic President. Maybe after a while voters and their elected officials always start looking alike, like a dog and its owner.

How can politicians who line up more steadfastly on the left or the right take advantage of the moral flexibility of the middle class? How best to woo this vast, protean segment of the electorate? Mr. Wolfe believes that middle-class Americans like the conservative message, but not the implacable attitude and the shrill tone. To liberals he hears his sample saying, “Trust us more and maybe we will trust you more”-trust in the reasonableness of everyday morality. In short, Mr. Wolfe thinks he can detect in the ebb and flow of middle-class opinion welcoming gestures toward both Republicans and Democrats. His sample is beckoning staunchly opposed political parties home to the center.

Can you use One Nation, After All to predict the outcome of the current national soap opera? It’s a clouded crystal ball, and my specs are a little grungy, encrusted with F.O.B. residue, but I believe I see how it will all play out. Asked about the morality of Zippergate, the 200 suburbanites (America writ small) would waffle a bit and then pronounce: “If the Prez can wriggle out of this one, more power to him!”