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Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon / Edition 1

Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon / Edition 1

by Robert D. Johnston


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900691126004
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/30/2006
Series: Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

Robert D. Johnston is Director of the Teaching of History Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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The Radical Middle Class

Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon
By Robert D. Johnston

Princeton University Press

Robert D. Johnston
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691096686

Chapter One


Politics, History, and Theory

From Yeoman to Yuppie: The Demonization of the American Middle Class

Arguably no class in human history has received so much comment, but so little systematic study, as the American middle class. And although the great multitude of ordinary Americans have been favorably disposed toward the solid and upstanding middle class, intellectuals have by and large held a different view. In scholarly circles, the middle class has, to put it mildly, an image problem. We cannot, therefore, even begin to think straight about-much less systematically to rethink-the middle class without first considering the one-dimensional vision that has served as the faulty tradition of American intellectuals.

Radicals have been the prime shapers of mainstream intellectual perspectives on the American middle class. Left-wing social theorists have characterized the middle class as politically retrograde, morally inert, and economically marginal for more than a century. Prominent socialist Robert Rives La Monte set the tone in 1908 when, casting about for an appropriate metaphor for the American middle class, he found what he desired inthe writings of Maxim Gorky. Sycophants and vampires, Rives La Monte announced, were the proper labels, for "in the middle stand the people who lick the hands of those who beat you in the face and suck the blood of those whose faces are beaten. That's the middle!"1

Unfortunately, Rives la Monte's nightmarish imagery would reign supreme across the political spectrum among the high thinkers of the twentieth century. Max Weber denounced the hypocrisy and "highly grotesque" characteristics of the American middle class. The entire middle class of the interwar era, David J. Saposs argued, suffered from a profound "inferiority psychosis" and general "inner feeling of defeat and helplessness in the clutches of capitalism." Even a self-proclaimed defender of the "intermediate millions," Charles Henry Melzer, could not keep himself from unleashing a torrent of (self ?) abuse, calling the middle class "futile, shiftless, feeble." And, of course, Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt remains a common symbol of the philistinism at the core of middle-class life.2

As one might expect, though, it is Marxists who-having learned to denounce all that is not proletarian-have formulated the most exhaustive case against the middle class. Here Lewis Corey's 1935 The Crisis of the Middle Class stands out for its uncompromising censure. Corey did happily grant "the middle class," particularly its lower segment of independent small property holders, its due in modern history as the primary carrier of democracy and enlightenment, despite its general dread of the masses. Yet with the development of capitalism and "the progressive slaughter of small capitalists," a complete sea-change of reaction had set in. Traditional American middle-class political struggles such as antimonopoly had become, according to Corey, "desperate," "hopeless," and the work of "a handful of bewildered and disunited malcontents." Corey succinctly appraised the future: "the middle class is doomed." Before it died, however, it would issue forth "the monster of fascism."3

In the postwar period, when the prototypical middle-class figure of the era became the lonely, trapped, and desperate Willy Loman, non-Marxist radicals and liberals gladly joined their few Marxist comrades in middle-class bashing. C. Wright Mills crystallized and codified this demonization of the American middle class in his 1951 masterpiece White Collar, still after half a century the most important book we have about the American middle classes. White Collar quickly turned from balanced-if passionate-social analysis to a jeremiad that became what Cornel West calls a "brazen condemnation of the middle classes": a "total damnation," Mills admitted in private correspondence, "of everything in this setup." Mills's middle-class subjects were essentially hopeless: alienated, confused, dependent, full of illusions and misery; in the best light, they were "cheerful robots."4

An equally astute book, E. Franklin Frazier's 1955 Black Bourgeoisie, fits neatly into the trashing genre. Analytically, Frazier emphasized oppression, but he nonetheless remained pitiless toward his subjects. Frazier's white-collar workers had no values higher than money, adultery, and poker. The black middle class lived in a "world of make believe," identifying totally with white middle-class values and serving as pawns for the "white propertied classes." Its religion was an artifice, its "contempt for the Negro masses" boundless. Overall, Frazier wrote-in the grand year of the Montgomery bus boycott-that the black middle class was "in the process of becoming NOBODY."5 As Deborah White notes, Frazier's "attack" was "malicious" and "singularly vicious."

Even those postwar social scientists who rejected radicalism in order to celebrate American liberalism shared the animus of Mills and Frazier. Although according to these scholars the American working class was uniquely immune to socialism, the American middle class shared its European counterpart's penchant for irrational, right-wing pseudofascist politics. Seymour Martin Lipset, for example, noted in 1960 that segments of the middle class had historically been participants in effective, egalitarian anticapitalist movements. Yet far from taking such crusades seriously, Lipset theorized that the impulses behind them were increasingly becoming channeled into destructive, ignorant, psychologically impoverished attempts to fight against the bigness of the modern world.6

The perspective of these 1950s scholars has shown a remarkable tenacity. A troika of prominent recent works provides evidence of the continuing one-dimensional portrait of the American middle class. In defense of a communitarian left-liberalism, Robert Bellah and his collaborators in Habits of the Heart show sympathy for older middle-class traditions of religious and political republicanism. Yet they depict the contemporary middle class as relentlessly success-driven, lacking in familial or communal roots, dedicated to the preservation of private cultural enclaves, and so enmeshed in "the monoculture of technical and bureaucratic rationality" that it chooses all larger social goals in a completely arbitrary manner. Bellah and his colleagues thus give us every reason to simply abandon the middle class, rather than try to locate any political hope in its midst.7

Mike Davis presents an even harsher and more pessimistic vision in his Prisoners of the American Dream. According to this provocative revolutionary, during the Reagan years the middle class turned toward a "home-grown fascism." As part of "the mass ruling class of the American world system," the middle class maintains its "boutique lifestyles" within "sumptuary suburbs." From inside "the laager of Yuppie comfort," the American middle class is poised to undertake military offensives against third-world liberation forces as well as, eventually, its own ghetto inhabitants.8

Between Davis's Marxism and Bellah's liberalism lies the caustic treatment of the American middle in Barbara Ehrenreich's acclaimed Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class. Ehrenreich optimistically envisions a revival of social concern on the part of the middle class, hoping that antielite sentiments and a desire to uphold the dignity of labor will lead to an alliance with workers and minorities. Once again, though, Ehrenreich's analysis leaves little reason for such hope. The story she tells is one of "prejudice, delusion, and even, at a deeper level, self-loathing." Her middle class became in the 1980s-although it was never much better-mean, selfish, and "indifferent to the nonelite majority." Operating under a general moral anesthetic, perpetually anxious about its ability to consume the right kind of commodities, the middle class has become a defensive and self-conscious elite, tending further and further toward the political right.9

Overall, then, twentieth-century intellectuals-whether because of guilt over their privileged backgrounds, or because of their lack of democratic faith-have transformed an entire category comprising millions and millions of people into some sort of demon intended to embody many, if not most, of the sins of American society. We therefore live in an age that has recast the typical member of the middle class from yeoman to yuppie: from the democratic representative of an all-inclusive American culture to a self-absorbed, and dangerous, excrescence on the country's social landscape. We must, and can, do better.10

The Countertradition

To reorient our thinking about the middle class, we must break free from the demonization paradigm, moving away from its unsatisfactory moral and political sensibility and toward an engaged, critically respectful vision of middle-class Americans. Fortunately, a neglected intellectual countertradition has also come down to us, one that acknowledges the complex nature of the history of middling Americans at the same time that it denies that "the" American middle class has any timeless political or cultural essence.11

The countertradition itself has grown out of an oppositional vernacular heritage, dating back to our national origins. For example, many Anti-Federalists considered themselves representatives of a democratic middling sort whose fate was politically linked with those below them. Voicing his opposition to the Constitution, Patrick Henry proclaimed: "I dread the operation of it on the middling and lower class of people," and Luther Martin warned that taxation under the new regime would crush "the middle and common class of citizens." A century later the supposedly working-class Knights of Labor thought of themselves, Leon Fink writes, as a grand producerist "middle social stratum, balanced between the very rich and very poor." In a like manner the Populists saw themselves in the Omaha Platform as being squeezed between "tramps and millionaires."12

A handful of latter-day scholars have also been articulate voices of the countertradition, arguing that American middling folks have been quite diverse in their culture and politics, with that diversity including a radical democratic heritage. The outstanding challenge to the "restraining myths" about the middle class came with the 1972 publication of sociologist Richard Hamilton's Class and Politics in the United States. By means of an intensive quantitative study of national voting patterns in the 1950s and 1960s, Hamilton argued that the middle class was not at all monolithic in composition or political attitudes. The fundamental division in American society, he contended, lay not between bourgeoisie and proletariat, nor middle class and working class, but between a lower middle class and an upper middle class. Unlike the civil libertarian upper middle class of the consensus sociologists, Hamilton's high-level white-collar professionals and managers felt most comfortable in the conservative "party of order." In contrast to the intellectuals' intolerant and antiradical lower middle class, Hamilton's clerks and small businessmen held political attitudes consonant with social democracy. Thus Hamilton's lower middle class was fully capable of forming social and political alliances with the blue-collar working class, and Hamilton maintained-correctly, we can see three decades later-that the fate of those alliances would be one of the chief determinants of future American politics.13

The recognition and rehabilitation of the lower middle class was Hamilton's major purpose and accomplishment. Unfortunately, his insight nearly disappeared in the ensuing decades. On the other hand, the upper or professional middle class-far too often the surrogate among the cultural Establishment for the entire middle class-has received significantly more scholarly attention. Here the major achievement of the countertradition has been to recognize not just the complexities, but also the potential radicalism of this well-to-do segment of the middling population.

Ironically, the most compelling argument for the possibilities of middle-class radicalism came in Barbara and John Ehrenreich's 1977 "enormously influential" treatise "The Professional-Managerial Class." Although placing themselves within a traditional leftist framework and eschewing the use of the term middle class, the Ehrenreichs sought to counter orthodox Marxists' refusal to countenance the development of a third class within capitalist society. They delineated the development of a high-level white-collar class both crucial to the successful functioning of corporate capitalism and capable of radical opposition to its would-be masters within the bourgeois ruling class.14

In his imaginative Middle Class Radicalism in Santa Monica, political scientist Mark Kann picked up on the Ehrenreichs' core analysis to argue that "middle class" and "radical" are far from categories of binary opposition. Kann writes that in Santa Monica during the late 1970s and 1980s a powerful radicalism grew out of-not in antagonism to-traditional middle-class American visions and desires. This strain of radicalism, deeply rooted in the American tradition, nurtured dreams of independence, decency, self-respect, and community at least as subversive of the relentless market orientation of modern corporate society as any socialist vision. In Kann's work the past and the present thus compellingly come together so that we might recognize what intellectual blinders have for too long prevented us from seeing-the radical middle class.15

Historians and the Middle Class

American historians have no more been able to transcend the demonization of the middle class than have other intellectuals, nor have they chosen to recognize the radicalism that has periodically flowed out of middle-class life. In the post-World War II heyday of consensus history, most took for granted the middle-class character of American society. Intellectuals as talented as Louis Hartz recognized such a complete hegemony to middle-class values that they felt it unnecessary to examine the middle class itself. As Hartz put it, "A triumphant middle class . . . can take itself for granted."16

Despite the reorientation of historical studies after the 1960s to matters of race, class, and gender, power and diversity, at least one significant constituent of American life remained trapped in the 1950s: the middle class. Historians wielded a yardstick of condescension when measuring the impact of middling folks on America's past.


Excerpted from The Radical Middle Class by Robert D. Johnston Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xvii


One: Rethinking the Middle Class: Politics, History, and Theory 3

Two: Curt Muller and the Capitalist Middle Class: Social Misconstructions of Reality 18

Three: Harry Lane and the Radicalism of Middle-Class Reform 29


Four: The Contours of Class in Portland 51

Five: Capitalism, Anticapitalism, and the Solidarity of Middle Class and Working Class 74

Six: Petit Bourgeois Politics in Portland and World History 90

Seven: Will Daly: The Petit Bourgeois Hero of Labor 99


Eight: Direct Democracy as Antidemocracy? The Evolution of the Oregon System, 1884-1908 119

Nine: Direct Democracy's Mechanic: William S. U'Ren 127

Ten: From the Grand Reorganization to a Syndicalism of Housewives: Feminist Populism and the Other Spirit of '76 138

Eleven: The Political Economy of Populist Democracy: The Single Tax Movement in Portland, 1908-1916 159


Twelve: A Deluded Mob of Ignorant Fools? The Historiography of Antivaccination, and the Risks of Vaccination 179

Thirteen: Shutting Down the Schools: Parents and Protest in Mt. Scott 191

Fourteen: From the Death of a Child to Sedition against the State: The Life and Ideology of Lora C. Little 197

Fifteen: Direct Democracy and Antivaccination 207

Sixteen: The Success and Radicalism of Antivaccination 218


Seventeen: School Boards and Strikes: Petite Bourgeoisie against Elite 223

Eighteen: Liberal Populism: The Compulsory Public School Bill 227

Nineteen: Corporate Tools: The Middling World of the Portland Klan 234

Twenty: The Producer's Call and the Portland Housewives' Council: The Tenuous Survival of Petit Bourgeois Radicalism 248


Twenty-One: The Lower Middle Class in the American Century 257

Twenty-Two: The Fate of Populism: Moral Economy and the Resurgence of Middle-Class Politics 266

Appendix 1: Tables 279

Appendix 2: Map, Voter Registration Density by Precinct, 1916 291

Abbreviations 293

Notes 295

Index 381

What People are Saying About This

Sven Beckert

Robert Johnston has written a terrific book, engaging one of the most neglected and important topics in U.S. history: the political history of the middle class. More successful than some of his predecessors, he gives middle-class Americans the history they so richly deserve. Powerfully argued, splendidly told, and provocatively fresh, The Radical Middle Class marks a milestone in the historiography of the American middle class. It is really the first book of its kind.
Sven Beckert, Harvard University, author of "The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie"

Elaine Tyler May

In this very exciting study, Johnston has truly broken new ground. For all its theoretical sophistication, the book is written with flair and is blessedly free of arcane jargon. The prose is clear, powerful, and even jaunty at times. The Radical Middle Class will become one of those rare and important books that no scholar of U.S. class relations and politics will be able to ignore.
Elaine Tyler May, author of "Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era"


Johnston's daring, meticulous, subtle, and analytically acute study of Portland's lower middle class leaves hundreds of shallow and condescending cliches about the petite bourgeoisie mortally wounded or gasping for breath in its splendid wake. He succeeds in restoring the historical autonomy, particularity, and egalitarian moral economy of America's lower middle classes. As with E.P. Thompson's history of the English working class, subsequent work on the middle class in America must now take this study as its point of departure.
James C. Scott, author of "Seeing Like a State"

Michael Kazin

This is one of the most original, provocative, and imaginative works about the modern U.S. that I have read in years. Johnston has produced far more than a splendid history about the neglected politics of a neglected city. His book is studded with insights about what it meant and means to be middle class and the fecund nature of populism in industrial and post-industrial America. What is more, he gives us hope for the future.
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University, author of "The Populist Persuasion: An American History"

Ralph Nader

A historical tour de force of the Progressive era in a middle class city, Professor Johnston's book will begin to unravel the stultifying stereotyping of the middle classes and remove cobwebs of inaction from the minds of today's civic organizers and thinkers.


Johnston seizes the Progressive Era and gives it back to the people. He argues that the roots of reform flourished among average citizens, those who thought that they could change the world by reasoning and voting together. This is a book about democracy at its best. Johnston recalls America's potential and underscores the paramount importance of civic activism on the local level.
Glenda E. Gilmore, editor of "Who Were the Progesssives?" and author of "Gender and Jim Crow"

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