We are better able to accept that America is a diverse nation now, Igo concludes. “The particular mass public of fifty years ago—characterized by an iconic Americanism, a majoritarian emphasis, and a fixation on the normal,” she claims, “does not exist in quite the same way.” I found that too sanguine. While I was reading Igo’s study, New York’s Senator Charles Schumer came out with a book entitled Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time. He offers up a panoply of policy suggestions, some any given reader might find inspired, others objectionable, others inadequate to the challenges America faces, others unworkable. Any reader will be ready to argue with Schumer; that’s how political books are supposed to work.


Only Schumer cleverly short-circuits his interlocutors. He has invented a “typical” American family, whom he calls the Baileys—white, two parents, two kids, living in a Brooklyn neighborhood that never would have been allowed to be called typical in the Lynds’ day. He has derived all his positions, he insists, via scrupulous introspection about what these “average Americans” need and want. Lo and behold, they think just like Charles Schumer. Disagree? Then you must not be an average American.
America is a patchwork. Pretending otherwise—to claim access to a notional average American—is to always make a specific moral argument. And you tend to find it exactly where you started looking—in the mirror. 

 

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. His new book, Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, is forthcoming.