Was there really cultural consensus in America in 1963?

Virginia Postrel takes issue with one recent claim from Charles Murray that 1963 America was some sort of golden era of cultural consensus. Postrel raises two counterpoints:

There are two big problems with this fable [of cultural consensus]. The first is that the old consensus was an illusion. Editing out anomalies was essential to the whole concept of a single culture as defined not merely by basic values but by taste and experience. Some of those anomalies were huge.

Take religion, a topic that looms large in Murray’s analysis. In 1976, Gallup for the first time asked people whether they had had a “born again” experience in which they committed themselves to Jesus Christ. It was a concept largely unknown to the popular media before the emergence of Jimmy Carter…

That’s the second problem with Murray’s fable: The cultural consensus was not just an illusion. It was an unhealthy one. Instead of promoting understanding, it fed contempt.

One piece of evidence is right on page 2 of the book: “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the highest-rated TV show the week Kennedy was killed. As Murray points out, nearly a third of American households watched it on CBS every week — astounding numbers by today’s standards. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was not just popular. It was, by most measures, the biggest hit in sitcom history. By its fourth week on the air, it had knocked Lucille Ball out of her top spot, and it only fell from the top 10 in its ninth and final season. It even saved “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” a flop in its original slot, by providing a big lead-in audience in an era when it was hard to change the channel. In a true consensus culture, everyone would have loved it…

Critics damned “The Beverly Hillbillies” as utter trash. The New York Times called it “steeped in enough twanging-guitar, polkadot gingham, deliberative drawl, prolific cousins and rural no-think to make each half hour seem as if it contained 60 minutes.” Variety declared it “painful to sit through.” Newsweek said it was “the most shamelessly corny show in years.”

So while Murray wants to tell a story of a dividing America, Postrel is suggesting there has always been an America divided between the elites and the masses. It seems to me that there would be ways to collect data to answer this question about whether the divide today is more pronounced than in the past and whether it is more problematic today than in the past.

This reminds me of all the suburban critiques that quickly emerged after World War II. While there are indeed viable issues to raise about suburban life (whether it is a good use of land and resources, whether it could be planned better, whether concessions could be made so that it is accessible by more than just cars, whether it could offer opportunities for the elderly and teenagers, that it should be welcoming to all people, etc.), there is also some scorn in this analysis. There was a lot of concern about “mass culture,” how the average American was being tempted by low-brow culture. Marxist commentators labeled this as the trade-off of “lawns for pawns.” These viewpoints tended to come from upper-class, urban commentators who couldn’t understand why so many Americans wanted the suburban lifestyle that these commentators argued was simply a glittering facade with no depth. One sociologist who jumped into this fray was Herbert Gans. Writing about the suburban experience (after living in Levittown, unlike many of the negative commentators) or popular culture, Gans debunked some of the myths. Using sociological data and theory, Gans poked holes in some of this commentary, suggesting that perhaps society wasn’t rapidly unraveling and that we were all doomed to live in the land of Idiocracy.

This is a reminder of a few things:

1. Analyzing American culture all at once is a tough task that requires good data and nuance.

2. Closing this gap between high and low culture may be a worthy task but it is not an easy one.

3. America will have to move forward while balancing these multiple perspectives of high and low culture. Either side demonstrating contempt for the other (think about attacks on “academic elites” or “mass culture”) isn’t helpful.

An academic conference to study elites

“Elites” have been in the news lately and recently, Columbia University hosted a conference about elites. This is not as normal as one might think:

In the academic world, this was remarkable. As several of the scholars acknowledged, there has traditionally been some unease in talking about the elite, let alone researching them.

“When we study the poor, it’s relatively easy,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia and the author of “Gang Leader for a Day” (Penguin Press, 2008). “The poor don’t have the power to say no. Elites don’t grant us interviews. They don’t let us hang out at their country clubs.”

But Dorian Warren, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia, said the increasing concentration of wealth, moving from the top 10 percent of Americans to the top 1 percent, has made this the right time to look more closely at the group. “We have to understand what’s going on at the top,” Mr. Warren said.

This is an interesting topic: so why don’t academics study elites more? A few reasons (from what I know about sociology):

1. As noted above, elites can be hard to access.

2. Sociologists have often focused on deviants and the poor are often considered more outside society’s norms.

3. Could it be that many sociologists, with higher levels of education and decent incomes, might themselves be part of or are closer to the elite? If so, then there might be less interest in studying themselves or drawing attention to the class they participate in.