A timely work of groundbreaking history explains how the American middle class ballooned at mid-century until it dominated the nation, showing who benefited and what brought the expansion to an end.
In Promised Land, David Stebenne examines the extraordinary revival of the middle class in mid-twentieth century America and how it drastically changed the country. The story begins with the pervasive income and wealth inequality of the pre-New Deal period. What followed—Roosevelt’s reforms, the regulation of business and finance, higher taxation of the truly affluent, and greater government spending—began a great leveling. World War II brought the military draft and the GI Bill, similarly transformative elements that also helped expand the middle class. For decades, economic policies and cultural practices strengthened the trend, and by the 1960s the middle class dictated American tastes from books to TV shows to housing to food, creating a powerful political constituency with shared interests and ideals.
The disruptive events of 1968, however, signaled the end of this headlong expansion. The cultural clashes and political protests of that era turned a spotlight on how the policies and practices of the middle-class era had privileged white men over women, people of color, and other marginalized groups, as well as economic growth over environmental protection. These conflicts, along with shifts in policy and economic stagnation, started shrinking that vast middle class and challenging its values, trends that continue to the present day. Now, as the so-called “end of the middle class” dominates the news cycle and politicians talk endlessly about how to revive it, Stebenne’s vivid history of a social revolution that produced a new and influential way of life reveals the fascinating story of how it was achieved and the considerable costs incurred along the way. In the form of a revealing history, Promised Land shines more than a little light on our possible future.
David Stebenne, the author of Promised Land, is a specialist in modern American political and legal history. He has published political commentary in The Conversation, HuffPost, TheNew Republic, TheObserver, and Salon and has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered to discuss politics, the economy, and labor issues. A native of Rhode Island and Maryland, he teaches history and law at Ohio State University.