In this month’s Atlantic cover story, Neal Gabler chronicles the distressing reality of life in today’s American middle class. Underneath the figures about debt-mired, financially-distressed households is also a sense of shame and betrayal. Gabler notes:
“Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all.”
This sentiment taunts at two sacred and quintessentially American convictions—that success is self-determined and that advancement is inevitable for anyone with a serious work ethic. According to a 2014 Pew Global Attitudes Study, people in the United States are much more likely to hold these two beliefs than many of their European counterparts.
Many Americans, then, are holding two contradictory ideas in their mind at once: the optimistic belief that their success is in their hands (on display since Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) and the acknowledgement that wages have been steadily stagnating (on decline since the band America).
How Americans struggle with reconciling these two concepts is a fascination of Katherine Newman, who serves as the provost at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Newman, who has researched and written about the effects of social mobility since the early 1980s, characterizes the kind of shame that Gabler describes as a fundamental component—and natural consequence—of the national narrative.