One Nation, After All

Laura Green reviews 'One Nation, After All' by Alan Wolfe

By Laura Green

Published March 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

|Polls and surveys strike me as mind-numbing ways to approach the complexities of political and moral belief, so I both am and am not the perfect audience for sociology Professor Alan Wolfe's "One Nation, After All." Wolfe aims to modify the adversarial method of the poll, which records degrees of agreement or disagreement with strongly worded statements ("America has become far too atheistic and needs a return to strong religious belief"), by combining it with the more nuanced approach of the survey, in which interviewers elicit free-form responses to open-ended questions.

To this end, Wolfe used both polling statements and interviews to elicit responses to hot-button topics (e.g., welfare, immigration, family structure, homosexuality) in a cross-country survey of 200 "middle-class" suburbia dwellers with family incomes well above the poverty line and well below Fortune 500 status. These responses, Wolfe claims, challenge the pessimistic view, fostered by polls, of a country riven with cultural conflict. His results led him to conclude instead that "the new middle-class morality ... is more accommodating, pluralistic, tolerant, and expansive than either [the right or the left] has recognized."

Wolfe emphasizes he defines his "middle-class" sample less by household income than by an adherence to a moral code of self-reliance, obligation to family and commitment to people and values outside themselves. He seems, however, uninterested in responses that might raise this notion of morality above platitudes. For example, he quotes one firefighter's endorsement of school prayer: "It doesn't take very long to say a prayer for anybody. And you could have a Muslim prayer, a Hindu prayer, and a Catholic prayer, and a Baptist prayer. You know, you could have all four of those in the span of five minutes and then go on about the day's chores." There's something moving but also incoherent in the slap-happy pluralism of this guy's call for spiritual observance based on the supposition that religion is neither meaningful enough to create conflict nor demanding enough to interfere with the day's real work. But for Wolfe, it simply supports his sanguine conclusion: "For the American middle class, religious diversity is here to stay ... the acceptance of so many different kinds of belief in America is remarkable."

Like Candide, the figure of blind optimism satirized by Voltaire, Wolfe implies that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." "One Nation, After All" is an essentially conservative recommendation to stay in our gardens and cultivate "morality writ small." Wolfe's middle-class America, characterized by "quiet faith" and "modest virtues," paradoxically provides "a set of values capacious enough to be inclusive but demanding enough to uphold standards of personal responsibility." Homosexuals and supporters of bilingualism form a strange pair of pariahs at this tea-party, but you don't have to be gay or an immigrant to find Wolfe's celebration of the golden mean depressing. Passion, politics and idealism seem to have no place in this utopia of middling virtue.

Laura Green

Laura Green is an assistant professor of English at Yale University.

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