Sunday, September 07, 2008

Why is it that the term “middle class” has such different meanings in the US and the UK?

Alexander Belenky, writing today at Comment is Free about struggling Americans watching TV programmes about the pampered rich, uses the term “have-nots” and “middle class” pretty much interchangeably. The alternative to “middle class” in the American discourse is invariably “rich”. Both left and right appeal to the middle class as their economic and cultural heartland, respectively. The caricature is that the middle class are bitterly clinging to god and guns and struggling to maintain a comfortable lifestyle while the rich, arugula-munching (that pretentious leaf, generally known as ‘rocket’ here in the UK, is a big deal in American politics) coastal elite enjoy greater incomes and are increasingly secular in their outlook.

By contrast, here when people attack Radio 4 for being too middle class they are arguing that it appeals to well-off Home Counties families who own Labradors, fill the best schools and quietly sidestep the social problems that afflict the troubled cities. When someone suggests that a political party is trying to appeal to the middle classes, they are suggesting that it wants to help the well-off. The alternative to being middle class is generally expected to be becoming part of the downtrodden poor underclass. The exceptions to this dichotomy are the numerically tiny but politically powerful urban elite – the closest analogy to America’s arugula class.

I think what the two middle classes have in common is that both the American and British middle classes are thought of as the backbones of their respective countries. The unassuming middle class in both countries gets on with things while the underclass is debilitated by social and economic ills. Also, in both countries the middle class are seen as culturally sensible or old-fashioned (depending on your perspective) compared with the urban/coastal elites.

Are the robust families that are the backbone of American society really poorer than their British counterparts?

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