Thirty years ago, this wasn’t the case. A worker in a Detroit car factory earned about the same as, say, a small-town dentist, and although they might have different taste in films or furniture, their purchasing power wasn’t radically different. Their children would have been able to play together without feeling as if they came from different planets.Her concept is that this is a good measure of the degree to which the middle class feels united -- that is, the degree to which it really is a class. She wants to make a point, much like Mickey Kaus does, that Americans care more about social equality than about political or economic equality. They argue that a very few super-rich (or a very few terribly poor) do not upset the sense of overall social equality, but that the American democratic concept won't work if a large part of the public feels separate from the rest.
Now they couldn’t.
There's a certain irony in this critique coming from the Left, which for many years worked very hard to instill just such a distinction in the minds of the American people. For a long time the phrase "the working class" was intended by Left-leaning thinkers to convince us to break the Middle Class into two parts, the upper-middle and middle-middle (which would remain "Middle Class") and the lower-middle (which would become "Working Class"). Insofar as they could achieve this, they could convince the "working class" that they had a class interest in Democratic politics, labor unions, and so forth. Insofar as the lower-middle class remained convince that it was 'Middle Class like everybody else,' those voters would continue to try to better their lot through economics rather than politics.
Nevertheless, the economic collapse of the last few years has achieved what the phrase could not achieve; and if the Left is late to the party of celebrating the general unity of American life, that doesn't mean that they are wrong on the point. There is a great social stability that arises because the vast middle -- say 80% of us -- think of ourselves as belonging to the same class. We don't all vote the same way even so, but there is a sense in which we're all more or less the same. In a democratic society, that's a virtue; so if we hope to remain a democratic society, it's important.
I wonder, though, if there isn't a broader point to be made about playing together. Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone that argues that American adults aren't playing together any more. The bowling league was once a feature of middle-class life, along with things like the Elk Lodge (a type of society so popular that they were satirized in The Flintstones); now, people almost always bowl alone. It isn't because bowling is less popular: bowling is more popular than ever. It's the community that has collapsed.
I think he has a good point in general, though his research is suspiciously tendentious. His state-by-state rankings are interesting, as all the Southern states are in the negative territory, and are clustered at the bottom of the list. The earliest is Virginia, at 33rd; of the bottom ten, only West Virginia and Nevada are from outside the South.
Does air-conditioning -- or the bitterly hot summers, in general -- cut down on the degree to which we play together? That might explain the general trend; but it doesn't answer the question of whether our communities are worse. On the other hand, I notice his sample questions speak of "civic and social" organizations but not "church groups." Leaving that out is going to eliminate one of the major sources of Southern community, which would also tend to bias the list.
Leaving aside that problem, though, it's an interesting question. Does the nation that plays together stay together? If so, is part of the answer to the economic crisis -- or at least, the political crisis attending the economic crisis -- to form more softball or bowling leagues? To make sure our children play together? It seems unlikely on its face, and yet I find I can't dismiss the idea. There is something powerful in play, for men and women as well as for children.