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Do Our Stories Privilege the Upwardly Mobile?

America needs a new national story.

Scott Olson/Getty

Great literature is biased toward the culturally upwardly mobile: People who’ve moved in different parts of society tell more interesting stories than those who are already at the top of the ladder. That’s the built-in limitation of great novels: You’re always getting a story sympathetic to the triumphant. In politics, this poses greater problems.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, of all people, understands this. In an April story (that could have easily been headlined “David Brooks discovers regular Americans”), Brooks made one very important point: “We’ll probably need a new national story,” he wrote. “Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that story isn’t working for people anymore, especially for people who think the system is rigged.” Of course, does anyone, at this point, think the system isn’t rigged?

The problem is not, as some commentators would have it, that the left has focused on race and gender over class. Rather, it’s that there’s been a tremendous emphasis, in the culture, on the very specific (and very important!) plight of people from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds and identity categories who’ve made it to elite situations. I think of the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, where a character reveals that she used the advance on her first novel to get her first-ever professional haircut. Or—in the non-fiction realm—of Jessica Valenti’s memoir excerpt, which is mainly about the ways men in cities harass young girls, but which also references Valenti’s status as the sole working-class kid in her high school friend group. Or of Julie Burchill’s recent lament regarding the overrepresentation of posh types in British journalism. In Burchill’s day, those from less-upscale backgrounds, such as herself, apparently had an easier time getting established. The most trenchant criticisms of class inequality tend to come—not unsurprisingly—from those on (or who’ve completed) upward trajectories.

Unfortunately this focus, on the mainstream left, leads to a relatively narrow understanding of injustice. Specifically, it’s just an empathetic twist on the conservative bootstraps narrative: The plights that get sympathy are those of the abundantly deserving and unambiguously screwed. It’s taken for granted that social mobility only happens after you make it to Harvard; what happens for the vast majority of the population for whom that isn’t in the cards is easily forgotten. Which is to say that those who were born into and remain in humble situations stay invisible.

Meanwhile, those who are downwardly mobile are called entitled, and informed that they’re simply experiencing the loss of previously held unearned advantages. It’s treated as dreadfully unfair that the great are held back by microaggressions, but also as somehow suspect that the mediocre or even sort of entitled and annoying would want a better life.

The answer is certainly not to, say, tell students who struggle or protest to be grateful for what they earned, a point that came through in Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker feature on Oberlin’s student protestors. But there has to be a way for politics to include and help everybody, including the not-as-sympathetic, that doesn’t involve going the bigotry-and-resentment route. The emphasis on making elite rungs accessible needs to be better balanced with efforts to bolster safety nets; to improve the standard of living for all; and, perhaps most importantly of all, to narrow the gap between rich and poor. I of course don’t have all the answers to how to get there, but a broadened focus, from the super-deserving to the merely-human, might be a start.