March 11, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Alan Wolfe, author of One Nation, After All, in a discussion about middle class morality, patriotism, and extremism in America.
DAVID GERGEN: Alan, many people have been concerned about whether America is flying apart, whether there's a disuniting of America. Arthur Schlesinger has worried whether there's too much pluribus and not enough unum. You've come to quite a different conclusion.
ALAN WOLFE, Author, One Nation, After All: I've talked to people. I mean, maybe one of the problems is that a lot of the folks who say that we're at some kind of culture war and that we're at each other's throats are reflecting their own views about the world, but they haven't actually gone out and talked to the American people.
DAVID GERGEN: And tell me about what you did to your conversations.
ALAN WOLFE: I thought it would be a good idea to hear what people out there said, and I also thought it would be a good idea to kind of get away from studying people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Berkeley, California. So I interviewed people in suburbs of Tulsa, Oklahoma, rich people call the buckle on the bible belt, in Cobb County, Georgia, which is the home of Newt Gingrich and the most conservative county in America according to many people. I interviewed primarily Hispanic suburbanites near the Mexican border in San Diego County, black suburbanites in Georgia, people around Boston and upper middle class Brookline, working class Catholics in Medford, people from all over, all different walks of life, middle class people by and large but from many different walks of life.
DAVID GERGEN: And what did you find about middle class morality?
ALAN WOLFE: I found that there is such a thing--it still exists, but it's not the middle class morality of your parents' or grandparents' generation. It's not this idea we have that people are very, very judgmental about how others live, that they kind of point their finger at other people. You know, there once was a great book written about middle-class morality in the United States, and it was called "The Scarlet Letter." Someone commits something that violates the moral code; you brand them; and then you make them a pariah in your community; while you, yourself, who's passing this judgment, you violate that code all the time. Well, I found it's actually the exact opposite. People tend to be very self-critical and judgmental about themselves. They believe in right and wrong. They know what right and wrong is for themselves, but they simply are enormously reluctant to ever say what's right and wrong for anybody else.
DAVID GERGEN: You've thought a very important part of this story was what's happened to religious belief in this country and how people are getting along from different religions.
ALAN WOLFE: I think it's one of those great stories that essentially goes unreported because we don't tend to notice it. But we were at the time that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "The Scarlet Letter," for example, we were a Christian country. Most people believed that you needed one religion to have one morality and that if you lost the one religion, you would lose morality. We are now a country that's enormously religiously diverse and we still seem to have a morality. It comes very eclectically from a number of different sources. But, even more importantly, people have learned to live with each other, in spite of different religious beliefs, and are very accepting of each other. I think it's actually astonishing, when you consider how many people have died in the name of faith in the world's history, or how many people in other countries are--even European countries like Great Britain--are still killing themselves over religious belief. We have actually transformed ourselves from a primarily Christian country to one that's fantastically religiously diverse and done so without bloodshed, without violating people's rights. It's quite remarkable.
DAVID GERGEN: So the point is that people have a set of rules that apply to themselves, but they're quite tolerant about what beliefs or rules others practice.
ALAN WOLFE: That's right. They're the kind of laissez-faire that we always practice in the economic realm now applies to the moral realm as well, which is pretty ironic, because conservatives who kind of like laissez-faire in the economy tend to be strict regulators of people's morality, and liberals who tend to be pretty open in laissez-faire morality tend to want to regulate the economy. Americans split the difference. There's laissez-faire in both areas of life, which is one reason why they swing from electing liberals to electing conservatives.
DAVID GERGEN: You also wrote that in addition to a quiet faith people have a mature patriotism. What did you mean by that?
ALAN WOLFE: Well, I found something that I don't think the polls have quite reflected yet, and that is the sense that the divisions over Vietnam in the United States, which so broke us apart as a country, are healing. By that, I mean that people who kind of once had a "my country, right or wrong," a pure belief, a pure blind faith in their country, they've been chastened by Watergate, by other things. They know that their country can do wrong. And they're not willing to give that absolutely unquestioned loyalty anymore. They love their country; they're enormously patriotic; but it's not in this completely and totally way that I'm going to suspend all judgment. On the other hand, people who are against the war, people of my generation who said, you know, what this country is doing is awful and horrible, and in some cases even left the country. They've seen the collapse of Communism. They've seen what happens elsewhere, and they've come to a quiet appreciation of the United States as well. So I think there's been a real healing of one our most sincere divisions.
DAVID GERGEN: Does all of this mean that people are coming more toward the middle and rejecting extremes in various forms?
ALAN WOLFE: I had a lot of people for whom extremism of any kind was an enormous problem for them. Let me just give you an example. We have in this culture war that's taking place--we presumably have conservative Christians on the one hand, who are denouncing things like value relativism and homosexuality. And then we have people who lead a lifestyle of liberation and freedom. On the other hand, one of the things I found, I remember interviewing someone in Oklahoma for whom there was no difference whatsoever between conservative Christian fundamentalists and gay activists because both were extreme, both had what he called an in-your- face approach to politics, but, even more importantly, both took something that he valued and prized, God on the one hand and love and sex on the other, and made it public. And for him things that are really, really valuable are things that you should keep out of politics, you shouldn't politicize them, you shouldn't make extreme statements about them. And it makes a kind of sense. Why would people who love God and who dislike politics want to see politics and God brought together? Why should people who love sex, love family life, and hate politics want to see sex and politics brought together? So they want to keep things private; they want to keep them to themselves; and extremists they define as people who take these things that are very valuable and just simply try to hammer home a point about them. People don't want to make points about things. They just want to lead their lives. They don't want things according to principle. They want things according to practice.
DAVID GERGEN: So this argumentative culture that exists in the airwaves, in the newspapers, and in the polls, that's not the real way people live though?
ALAN WOLFE: It's not. And I have certain regrets about that. I am--you know, I am one of those people who likes to argue. I write a lot. I always have a point of view. I have very, very strong feelings about things. It's not like what I'm describing out there in America is a model for me. If it were, I'd be out of business. But it is a reality. I actually think that people need to argue more. At the end of my book I try to say, look, this non-judgmentalism, this tolerance, it's wonderful; I'd rather have this than Bosnia or Northern Ireland, but, let's face it, if we live in one country and we share a common goal of citizenship, we've got to be judgmental about each other, and we've got to take and respect each other seriously enough to really argue.
DAVID GERGEN: But start with tolerance.
ALAN WOLFE: Start with tolerance first. I mean, I think like with anything, you need a balance, as most of the people I talked to, they really believe in balance, I would much rather start with a tolerant society, and then try to work in a little bit of judgmentalism, than start with a society where people hate each other, and then try to teach him a little tolerance.
DAVID GERGEN: Alan Wolfe, thank you very much.
ALAN WOLFE: Thank you.