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Nonfiction in Brief

May 22, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

MIDDLE AMERICAN INDIVIDUALISM The Future of Liberal Democracy by Herbert Gans (Free Press: $19.95)

Many progressives from the 1960s who aren't trading shares on Wall Street today have ended up in academe, bemoaning middle American apathy toward international human rights abuses, domestic social squalor and the rest of the world beyond the white picket fence. In this bold and provocative inquiry, sociologist Herbert Gans, one of these progressives, challenges his colleagues' condescension. "Liberals and middle Americans have more common interests than either population realizes," Gans writes, "but if these are to be expressed politically, liberals have to work harder than in the past to appeal to middle America." Drawing from a wide, respectable body of statistical evidence, Gans shows that middle Americans, the numerical and cultural majority to which every presidential candidate appeals, are neither narrow-minded racists nor self-interested materialists. As Gans sees it, middle America's "new conservatism" has little to do with the growth of right-wing ideology; rather, the movement embraces longstanding American libertarianism, a post-Watergate suspiciousness of government and a deeply rooted human need to value economics over idealism during times of financial insecurity.

Middle Americans, Gans concludes, want a vision of an egalitarian, humane welfare state that takes care of their needs--low taxes, full employment--as well as the needs of the poor. It's a simple and sensible vision (to articulate, if not to implement) and yet Democratic leaders have not taken full advantage of its popular appeal. A few of Gans' solutions seem overly idealistic. He suggests, for example, that elected representatives should be given extra staff members to listen to people who aren't normally represented; this would do little, however, to offset the influence of wealthier special interest groups. Most of Gans' views are both upbeat and sensible, however, suggesting ways for sociologists to better study people's needs and for politicians to better serve them.

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