But were his findings right? The debate has raged ever since. His underlying methodological flaw was that a person had to be willing to submit to the most probing sexual interview imaginable to show up in the data. As one angry critic charged, “no normal moral man or woman” would ever do that. The critic had a point. People who were comfortable with sex did seem to be over-represented in his sample; as some of Igo’s examples make clear, for many the thought of being interviewed by Kinsey was in itself a sexual thrill. The problem was compounded when Kinsey turned his attention to Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. “Given reigning conventions about female modesty, the idea of women submitting to interviews with the all-male research team was especially unsettling,” Igo notes. “Many concluded that Kinsey’s female interviewees must have been prostitutes, or at the very least seriously maladjusted.”

The American inclination to believe that the American who is typical is for that reason good was about to receive a workout as never before. These people were not “good”—the very fact that they answered Kinsey’s questions was evidence of that. Therefore they could not be typical. How did critics of the study know? They were typical Americans, and they didn’t do any of these things. “I have lived with one woman for 46 years,” wrote one, “and I do not agree with your findings . . . when you show as one magazine reports that 62 percent of adult women practice masturbation.”

Such letters weren’t that different from the letters Gallup got. The vast majority of letter writers, Igo reports, “were troubled that a science claiming to speak for them had never bothered to ask their opinion in the first place.” Kinsey and Gallup, after their fashion, each argued that the average American had a special moral standing. So if you disagreed, you probably weren’t average. Worse, they may have been suggesting that something was wrong with you. Such were the wages of averaging Americans. (No one ever wrote Gallup to complain, “How dare you claim my opinion is in the majority?”) It is a uniquely American problem. Alexis de Tocqueville, after all, was fascinated by the paradox that in this most free of all nations, the one in which self-invention was supposed to be an accepted part of life, demands for conformity were more pervasive than in the unfree nations of Europe. E pluribus unum sometimes means denying that “the many” exist in the first place.

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. 

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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.