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Edward Banfield's America, Then and Now

July 9, 2024

By Titus Techera

A recent Washington Monthly report by Robert Kelchen and Marc Novicoff on the pro-Palestine campus protests and encampments put together the data to show a very interesting social fact which we have had to learn or relearn in recent years of “mostly peaceful protests.” The authors ask and answer:

Have pro-Palestinian protests taken place disproportionately at elite colleges, where few students come from lower-income families?
The answer is a resounding yes.

Kelchen and Novicoff not only correlate the data to show that encampments especially are a luxury, strange as it may seem, a rare flower that can only grow in the tenderly cultivated soil of the Ivy League and of similarly expensive private institutions that foster the American elite, but they also show that there’s no special correlation between such ostensibly political activity and democratic engagement through ROTC or AmeriCorps or Peace Corps or voting.

This very unusual social fact could be stated more generally this way: there seems to be an affinity and perhaps an alliance between the upper class and the lower class against the middle class. Hence the preference for protest over volunteering and the strong correlation between people who decry privilege and people who have what they would call privilege.

This recent turn of events made me think of one of the classics of American social science, Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974), now in its 50th anniversary. This is one of a small number of essays that should be required reading in college courses on government or social studies, because it is both a very good introduction to the problems of policy and public opinion and a statement on the defects of the virtues of middle class America that remains true today.

Banfield marshals the data compiled by social scientists as only an expert practitioner can, but he makes every effort not to dazzle us readers with expertise; his tone is measured, his judgments are often tentative, provisional, or limited by the remit of social science; humanity and skepticism moderate each other in his remarks. This makes him a masterly guide, chapter by chapter, to the problems of the American cities, analyzing class, race, poverty, unemployment, schooling, crime, and rioting.

One striking thing, in hindsight, is the obvious fact that no one at Harvard today dares to write as candidly as Banfield did in the heyday of mid-century liberalism, the first decade of the Great Society. He’s both more scientific and manlier than most scholars today. (The only recent intellectual celebrity at Harvard who tried to make the arguments and marshal the data as Banfield did, Roland Fryer, was canceled for his efforts.) This is another reason to return to Banfield and try to live up to a more worthy tradition of political science.

Banfield’s core concept in The Unheavenly City Revisited is the process of ‘upper- and middle-class-ification.’ American cities are engines of wealth, everyone who acquires wealth there then can satisfy the desire for larger houses and more privacy and so they move out, leaving the working and lower classes to become quite important socially and politically. Next, the children of this exodus return to the cities to pass judgment on American society as woefully lacking in the humane achievements their upper- and middle-class parents instilled in them.

Banfield’s class analysis focuses on the upper class, which defines itself by the very act of defining itself. It aspires to and therefore educates for self-expression, the pursuit of individuality, experience, etc. America is emphatically a middle-class country, but Banfield is justified in his focus: the middle class defines itself by the act of improving itself, i.e. imitating the upper class. This understanding of freedom is exactly John Stuart Mill’s, which he calls “experiments of living” in On Liberty: “Liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow.” Well, not exactly, since Mill’s limiting or negative principles, avoiding harm and accepting consequences, have disappeared from concern, but that was predictable.

Banfield suggests the defining upper- and middle-class quality is a focus on the future, worrying about long-term consequences and preferring a long adolescence, with lots of education, for children who are going to enjoy a long life. To plan such a future involves a reductive rationalism, to construct models of human action and thus extrapolate or design a future, which also favors education. These very qualities—which really are needed for the prosperity Americans enjoy—also make America’s elites uniquely unsuited to treat the working class with respect or to deal with the lower class with toughness, patience, and an understanding of their different preferences and possibilities. Hence, American success leads to crisis.

Moreover, upper-class insistence on adolescence creates a unique danger, encouraging the young to behave like the lower class, in search of defining experiences, since individuality can only be discovered through transgression, not conformism. Liberty becomes essentially criminal in this understanding, which should have become obvious by the time of the hippies, but which we are living through all over again. Nowadays, we lack even the courage to call a riot a riot. Instead, we talk of protests, in order to conform to the niceness the rioters despise and try to destroy. We are middle class; they aspire to something else, with remarkable elite support, to say nothing of indulgence. This is the closest Banfield comes to suggesting the elite conception of liberalism is contradictory at its core and cannot sustain self-respect nor tolerate in those who have it—the middle and working classses who respect authority (Nixon voters).

The most striking example of Banfield’s conception of America, striking because it has been largely removed from our public discourse, is the great influence of Puritan morality on the national character. The Puritan desire to create a heavenly city is creating an American hell; an unheavenly city would be much more bearable. It’s worth quoting at length from his penultimate chapter:

The American political style was formed largely in the upper classes. Accordingly, it is oriented toward the future and toward moral and material progress, for the individual and for the society as a whole. The American is confident that with a sufficient effort all difficulties can be overcome and all problems solved, and he feels a strong obligation to try to improve not only himself but everything else. Ever since the days of Cotton Mather, whose Bonifacius was a how-to-do-it book on the doing of good, service has been the American motto. To be sure, practice has seldom entirely corresponded to principles. The principles, however, have always been influential and they have sometimes been decisive. They can be summarized in two very simple rules: first, DON'T JUST SIT THERE, DO SOMETHING! and second, DO GOOD!
These two rules contribute to the perversity that characterizes the choice of measures for dealing with the urban "crisis." From the President on down everyone (almost everyone) enjoys the feeling of exhilaration when a bold step is taken, and that enjoyment is no less when, as it almost always must be, the step is taken blindfold. Believing that any problem can be solved if only we try hard enough, we do not hesitate to attempt what we do not have the least idea of how to do and what, in some instances, reason and experience both tell us cannot be done. Not recognizing any bounds to what is feasible we are not reconciled to - indeed, we do not even perceive - the necessity, so frequently arising, of choosing the least objectionable among courses of action that are all very unsatisfactory.
In reality, the doing of good is not so much for the benefit of those to whom the good is done as it is for that of the doers whose moral faculties are activated and invigorated by the doing of it, and for that of the community, the shared values of which are ritually asserted and vindicated by the doing of it. For this reason, good done otherwise than by intention, especially good done in pursuance of ends that are selfish, is not really "good" at all. For this reason, too, actions taken from good motives count as good even when in fact they do harm.

Banfield’s preference for moderation show up everywhere in his style, but especially in his preference for mordant irony. In his discussion of the ways macho prejudices may inhibit female criminality, he stops to introduce a parenthesis: “It is safe to say that the women's liberation movement has had no influence upon the working and lower classes.” Things have changed, of course, as he warned they likely would; but I am also minded of the prevalence of young women in college protests nowadays.

We live with the problems our parents and grandparents lived with, because American society is what it was. Our theoretical egalitarianism and our nice manners endure somehow, in an effort to protect personal freedom and experiments of living. Reading Banfield is a cure for many temptations to hope or despair, but it’s also the introduction to a grander historical perspective and a broader social observation. One thing that makes America tolerable, in Banfield’s presentation, is that it’s real, allowing the readers some self-understanding and even offering guidance as to various choices and difficulties. This is a virtue almost entirely lacking in our discourse. The Unheavenly City is humane, which is not a bad thing…

Titus Techera is the Executive Director of the American Cinema Foundation and hosts the ACF podcasts. He tweets as @titusfilm.


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