from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Our American Class System

A bottle and glass of Coca-Cola
image credit: iStock/BlakeDavidTaylor

Back in the 1970's, Andy Warhol made this observation about American society:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

The sixties and the seventies were also the period during which our US President, John F. Kennedy, confessed that one of his favorite books was a James Bond spy novel, From Russia With Love. (Later in the sixties I remember acquiring and reading all of the Ian Fleming paperbacks, then “loaning” them to my uncle, the chief engineer on a cargo ship, never to see them again.)

This was also the era that included the career of The Beatles. Early on, in 1963, John Lennon wryly remarked at a Royal Variety Performance in London:

For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.

Lennon, of course, was using the stage to make essentially the same point that Warhol was: The Queen listened to The Beatles, famous and wealthy personages listened to these four working-class lads from Liverpool, and no amount of money could get you a better Beatles performance than the latest one that everyone was listening to on the radio.

This was also a period during which, despite all the setbacks, racial integration seemed to be making real headway. Here’s how one of the football players at my newly integrated high school described his experience in the late sixties:

I had a great coach, a great football coach. He was totally color blind. The team was color blind, and our relationships actually strengthened the school because there was no barrier in sports and that transferred over to other students.

In short, this was a period of our history during which class distinctions seemed to be fading. Sure, some people had more money than others. My mother drove a Ford Falcon, my father drove a Mustang, and my Uncle drove a Thunderbird. But they all drove Fords, everyone drove cars built in Detroit, and the similarities between the cars they were driving were more significant than the differences. And historical data shows that this indeed was the period of the lowest levels of American income inequality in the last hundred years.

If anyone doubted that this period is now over, then the recent meal served to the Clemson Tigers football team at the White House, along with the subsequent media coverage, could easily have served to drive the final nails into the coffin. No matter where you looked, there was our President, proudly spreading his arms wide, welcoming the champions to tables coved with white linen and fast food: the very best that McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Domino’s had to offer. Stuff that Trump described as “Great American food.”

Because, of course, this was not a “Coke-is-a-Coke” sort of unifying event for our society. Instead, it was a perfectly engineered media event designed specifically to highlight the vast divide between our societal elites and everyone else: while media pundits were enjoying a predictable field day over the spectacle, Trump supporters were once again identifying with their champion, someone who had risen to the highest office in the land, and yet still proudly enjoyed and served the same food that they ate on a regular basis.

This is the class division that propelled Donald Trump into the White House. And while I generally consider his “Make America Great Again” rhetoric to be ill-informed and misguided, he has stumbled onto something here that none of us can afford to ignore. Because this divide is real, and is becoming more apparent everyday. Whether it’s Neal Gabler’s piece in The Atlantic on “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans,” or Matthew Stewart’s telling us that “The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy,” or Anand Giridharadas informing us that “elite philanthro-capitalists do more harm than good,” the truth is now out and available for everyone to see: we are a society divided between the haves and the have-nots, the elites and the rest of us, and the deck is increasingly stacked against the rest of us.

What’s not so clear at this point is how to unstack the deck and start giving everyone a fair hand. Because the chips have all piled up in certain corners, and so simply dealing the cards fairly from this point on won’t suddenly get our society back to where it was fifty years ago. It took the New Deal, World War II, the Great Migration, the G.I. Bill, and the Space Race to put a thorough end to our last Gilded Age, and there’s no way now to just flip a reset switch that will erase all of the class and racial division that has built up in our society over a period of several decades.

While our path to future greatness may not yet be clear, I think that we can draw some conclusions about the imaging that will be needed in our next US election cycle.

  • The “up from humble origins” story told by an old white person will not be sufficient: the origins are too far in the past, and the protestations of class equality are too transparently disingenuous for anyone to buy them.

  • The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dance-like-nobody-is-watching meme is closer to what will be needed: someone with an authentic voice, who is younger than your grandparents, who has actual, recent first-hand experience of how her constituents are living, and who is unafraid to come to the voters and meet them on their own turf.

Our last American presidential candidate who met these qualifications happened to be a gentleman of color, but had a fair amount of success at the polls. Unfortunately, it’s still not clear who might be qualified to follow in his footsteps.

Of course one might argue that the logical present-day analog to the object of Andy Warhol’s observation from fifty years ago would be a different sort of caffeinated beverage: one typically served at a somewhat higher temperature.

Sounds like we will soon get a chance to see how someone who helped to make that product a household name might make that analogy work to his advantage.

January 27, 2019