The Politics of Middle Class Children

A black child of eight, a girl who lives in southern Alabama, just above Mobile, told me in 1968 that she knew one thing for sure about who was going to be president: he’d be a white man; and as for his policies, “no matter what he said to be polite, he’d never really stand up for us.” Already she knew herself to be a member of “us,” as against “them.”

A few miles away, a white child of nine, a boy, the son of a lawyer and plantation owner, had a rather different perspective on the presidency: “The man who’s elected will be a good man; even if he’s not too good before he goes to Washington, he’ll probably turn out good. This is the best nation there is, so the leader has to be the best, too.”

A child with keen ears who picks up exactly his father’s mixture of patriotism and not easily acknowledged skepticism? Yes, but also a child who himself—by the tone of his voice and his earnestness—has come to believe in his nation’s destiny, and in the office of the presidency. How about the governor? “He’s better known than most governors,” the boy boasts. Then he offers his source: “My daddy says that we have a better governor than they do in Louisiana or in Georgia. (He has cousins in both states.) And he says that our governor makes everyone stop and listen to him, so he’s real good. He knows how to win; he won’t let us be beaten by the Yankees.”

Is this more sectional bombast, absorbed rather too well by a boy who now, a teenager, hasn’t had the slightest inclination to develop the “cynicism” a number of students of the process of “political socialization” have repeatedly mentioned as prevalent? Or is it, more likely, the response of a child who knows what his parents really consider important, really believe in—and fear? “I took my boy over to my daddy’s house,” the child’s father recalls, “and we watched Governor Wallace standing up to those people in Washington; he told the President of the United States that he was wrong.”

The boy was then four, and no doubt even were he to see a child psychoanalyst for several years he would not at nine, never mind at fifteen, recall the specific event his father and grandfather have very clearly in mind. But time and again he has heard members of his family stress how precarious they feel in relation to Yankee (federal) power, and therefore how loyal to a governor who gives the illusion of a successful defense of cherished social and political prerogatives.

Up North, in a suburb outside Boston, it is quite another story. At nine a girl speaks of America and its leaders like this: “I haven’t been to Europe yet, but my parents came back last year and they were happy …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.