Saturday, January 14, 2012

Self-identified social class membership over time

In an essay adapted from the forthcoming Coming Apart:The State of White America, 1960–2010, Charles Murray writes:
Finally, there is the most lovable of exceptional American qualities: our tradition of insisting that we are part of the middle class, even if we aren’t, and of interacting with our fellow citizens as if we were all middle class.
Murray argues that this phenomenon is ceasing to exist, in what seems to be a natural outgrowth (via HBD chick) of the increasing cognitive stratification that characterizes the contemporary United States, something Murray and Herrnstein famously chronicled in The Bell Curve. Instead of each person viewing himself as being crowded halfway up the ladder alongside everyone else--or, better yet, together flipping the ladder on its side and taking seats next to one another on a long bench of equal height--many more find themselves at the top or bottom ends, the distance in between too wide for either end to see, let alone interact with, the other end.

Murray goes on to statistically detail a divergence between that top and bottom on a host of social indicators. I wondered if Murray's observations might also be detectable in the way that Americans self-identify themselves. The proceeding graph traces the percentages of whites aged 30-49 (to stick with the demographic Murray discusses) by the social class they see themselves belonging to from the early seventies to the present (click to the left of the image for greater resolution):


Overwhelming majorities of Americans think of themselves, in essentially equal numbers, as either working- or middle-class. Small minorities identify at the bottom of the heap or at the upper echelons, again in equal numbers, with a small divergence identifiable in the last few years, presumably due to the 'Great Recession'.

Of course, ideal behaviors and actual behaviors are rarely the same thing. Indeed, we see that on the whole, people have perceived themselves maintaining similar levels of social standing over the last four decades even as the criteria for evaluating said social standing tells a different story. Propositionalism alone isn't enough. It may be a necessary ingredient of American exceptionalism, but it isn't a sufficient one. As Francis Grund observed nearly two centuries ago:
No government could be established on the same principle as that of the United States, with a different code of morals. The American Constitution is remarkable for its simplicity; but it can only suffice a people habitually correct in their actions and would be utterly inadequate to the wants of a different nation.
GSS variables used: CLASS, RACE(1), AGE(30-49)

5 comments:

John said...

"it can only suffice a people habitually correct in their actions and would be utterly inadequate to the wants of a different nation"

A lot of countries have tried strong, directly elected presidents, only to have them become dictators. It is much harder for a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system to pull this off. The reason why we haven't had a dictator in America is that Americans wouldn't put up with it.

Anonymous said...

"The reason why we haven't had a dictator in America is that Americans wouldn't put up with it."

Really? Well what about the folks we are importing now? Will they support dictators? Or anyway, submit to tyrants?

dearieme said...

Systems of elective monarchy have flourished in the past, so why shouldn't yours? Mind you, it's had a good run already and there's no telling how long it will last.

ziel said...

Hah - what does that dead, white Francis Grund guy know. Hillary Clinton sets him straight:

"The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous, and wrong. They do it in this country every day."

Anonymous said...

"The suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy is insulting, dangerous, and wrong. They do it in this country every day."

Ugh, I'm gonna puke.