One Nation, After All

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

ONE NATION, AFTER ALL: WHAT MIDDLE-CLASS AMERICANS REALLY THINK ABOUT GOD, COUNTRY, FAMILY, RACISM, WELFARE, IMMIGRATION, HOMOSEXUALITY, WORK, THE RIGHT, THE LEFT, AND EACH OTHER reports on Alan Wolfe’s Middle Class Morality Project, an effort to discover whether middle-class Americans were deeply divided over moral issues. Wolfe’s research assistant lived in each of eight suburban communities for a short period while interviewing selected individuals on such topics as religious faith; family values and family structure; whether women should work outside the home; immigration; multiculturalism; bilingualism; race relations; affirmative action; homosexuality; work ethics; community involvement; why they chose to live in the suburbs; and suburban life in general.

Wolfe admits that he conducted far too few interviews to yield an acceptable random sample for serious research; that interviewees were allowed to focus on topics that interested them most; and that questions dealing with homosexuality were developed after several interviews were already complete. In spite of these anomalies, Wolfe presents the results of his project as fact, frequently generalizing from his respondents to all middle-class Americans, and occasionally, to Americans as a whole.

Wolfe’s findings are at odds with social critics’ and politicians’ ideas about the middle class. Wolfe’s interviewees are not particularly conservative or liberal but try instead to avoid extremes, muting their opinions and moral positions in order to avoid conflict with everyone else. They epitomize what Wolfe terms “quiet faith,” “mature patriotism,” and “morality writ small,” and are best characterized by their determination not to pass judgment on others. Wolfe came to believe that the “culture war” supposedly raging among the middle-class was actually being played out in individuals struggling within themselves to reconcile traditional and modern points of view.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXVIII, March 7, 1998, p. 2.

Commentary. CV, May, 1998, p. 68.

Commonweal. CXXV, April 24, 1998, p. 19.

The Economist. CCCXLVII, April 18, 1998, p. S8.

Library Journal. CXXIII, March 15, 1998, p. 86.

The New Leader. LXXXI, March 9, 1998, p. 16.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, June 11, 1998, p. 26.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 8, 1998, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 22, 1997, p. 44.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, February 15, 1998, p. 1.

One Nation, After All

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

One Nation, After All reports on the results of Alan Wolfe’s Middle Class Morality Project, an effort to discover whether middle-class Americans were sharply divided on moral issues regarding family structure, religious beliefs, and the general state of the country.

Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston University and author or editor of numerous articles and books on American politics and culture, describes the political and academic positions taken up by other writers, journalists, social scientists, economists, social critics, and the media, who collectively believe that the middle class is disillusioned and polarized as the result of several factors: the struggle to stay in the economic “middle” in the face of unforeseen economic pressures; the increasing difficulty of attaining the American Dream; an ever more cynical view of politicians by whom the middle class feels betrayed; a nationwide revival of fundamentalist religious beliefs; and an en masse move to the suburbs (often seen as a selfish attempt to avoid responsibility for inner-city communities).

Perhaps most important in Wolfe’s view is the “culture war” that is widely assumed to be raging between conservative traditionalists, who uphold family values and are reportedly experiencing a religious revival, and “modernists,” who are tolerant of alternatives in family structure and varieties of faith and more liberal in their political views. Wolfe writes, “I was drawn to the idea that a deep divide existed in America between upholders of traditional cultural and moral values and those attracted to more modern themes of personal or group identity. . . . The only problem was that when I wrote this way, like many of the others who contributed to the debate, I had not talked to Americans, many of whom might like to have a say in the ongoing conversations about what was taking place inside their heads.”

In an effort to give middle-class Americans that opportunity, Wolfe designed the Middle Class Morality Project to examine whether individuals in this particular group actually held the moral positions critics such as himself had begun to take for granted. Wolfe and research assistant Maria Poarch interviewed two hundred middle-class Americans not only to find out what they thought and believed but also to get some sense of why they believed as they did and to discover whether they were, indeed, deeply divided into two warring moral camps.

Wolfe offers a primer on research methods and describes his own methodology. Because the suburbs are so often identified with middle-class values, he chose to confine his study to suburban Americans, even though they might not always fit a preconceived idea of who is “middle class.” Referring to survey data indicating that most Americans think of themselves as belonging to the middle class, Wolfe acknowledges the difficulties of objectively defining the middle class as a subject group. He explains in some detail his approach to this problem and how he selected interview subjects for the Morality Project. Wolfe also explains that the Middle Class Morality Project combined ethnographic and survey methods of research and offers a brief analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of each type of research.

The bulk of the study utilized an ethnographic approach, requiring the researcher to live among the group under study for a period of time. Poarch lived in each of the suburban communities involved in the study for at least three months and conducted most of the interviews in a somewhat informal, conversational format, often in the interviewee’s home, where family members were allowed to participate. Interview subjects were asked for their views on such topics as religious faith; family values and family structure; whether women should work outside the home or devote themselves to child-rearing; loyalty to one’s country; immigration; multiculturalism; bilingualism; race relations; affirmative action; homosexuality; work ethics; community involvement and community ties; why they chose to live in the suburbs; and suburban life in general. Wolfe explains that the interviewees’ transcribed responses were categorized and coded for the purposes of the study.

In an attempt to collect additional hard data, subjects were asked to respond to a survey allowing them to rank their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as “there are times when loyalty to an ethnic group or to a race should be valued over loyalty to the country as a whole.” Many tables are presented to show the number of respondents...

(The entire section is 1884 words.)