Tensions between the classes are at an all time high, or so declares this article from Time magazine. The piece is based on a recent Pew study in which 66 percent of respondents said that they "believe there is 'strong conflict' between rich and poor—a huge jump from 47% who felt that way in 2009."
This negative idea of class—as something that we engage in "warfare" over—is embedding itself into today's public conversation about politics and the economy like a deer tick. Politically, there's this sense that the 99 percenters resent very rich Americans for their wealth and the caricatured trappings of their wealth, like their extravagant corporate jets, their excessive bonuses, and even their lavish jewelry tabs (recall Newt Gingrich's $500,000 Tiffany's tab). It goes without saying that in this time of economic malaise and even austerity, displays of extravagant wealth might not sit well with Americans. It's gauche, excessive, and gaudy. Here, wealth and class are synonymous.
But culturally, there is a different reality—a different picture of class. In the popular culture—where we turn to escape from our grim economic, political, and personal realities—we are not only intrigued with, but admire those that just happen to be these very same one percenters whom we otherwise envy. Well, not quite the same one percenters. Our infatuation with class in the popular culture takes on a decidedly British air, in our obsession with the miniseries Downton Abbey and our adoration of the royal celebrity Kate Middleton. The defining feature of each is class. Downton Abbey is an award-winning period drama about an aristocratic family living during the reign of King George V. And Middleton is now a member of the royal family. It doesn't get higher-class than that.
In the story of Kate Middleton, we see the virtues of class expressed in an American way. Middleton was a commoner, a member of the middle class. Her mother was a flight attendant. Now, Kate is the queen-in-waiting—a duchess, but one who does her own grocery shopping. She is a “blessedly normal” woman who can walk the halls of Buckingham Palace and command the attention of the world with her elegance, poise, and grace—not to mention her much beloved fashion sense. Her famous blue London Issa dress, which she wore with Prince William at her side, sold out immediately after they announced they were engaged. She has become the embodiment of classy to a world of young women looking for precisely such a role model in a pop culture otherwise inundated with crass and aggressive female personae (see: Chelsea Handler). With Middleton, we see that class does not have so much to do with wealth, as with how you carry yourself while others are looking.
Part of the allure must be the British element. What we don't tolerate from our own corporate aristocracy, we may tolerate from the aristocracy of another nation, closely related to ours, but with a distinctive lilt in the voice. Excessive displays of wealth seem like bad form on this side of the Atlantic, where the flat edge of the democratic spirit wants to level hierarchic distinctions, rather than sharpen them. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, such displays of wealth are celebrated. According to some estimates, the royal wedding cost billions of dollars to pull off. Nobody was crying class warfare back in April, though. Instead, they were mesmerized by the spectacle of a televised ceremony. Over twenty million Americans tuned in, and millions more watched worldwide.
It's a similar story with Downton Abbey. At Newsweek, Simon Schama asks, "Why have Americans fallen for a show that serves up snobbery by the bucketful?" He thinks the show is nothing more than "a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps."
What makes Downton stand out—what makes it the subject of office chatter, newspaper columns, tweets, Facebook posts, and more—is that it presents a captivating drama against a visually lush and lavish backdrop. The setting is what sets it apart. The series begins with the sinking of the Titanic. Now, there’s the hardship of the Great War to grapple with. Questions of matrimony, money, and inheritance rise and fall. The scenes take place in and out of a manor inhabited by tony aristocrats. Its appeal is aesthetic. As an art history professor, Schama should know this.
The Guardian's Sam Wollaston made this connection when he wrote of the series, "It's beautifully made—handsome, artfully crafted and acted. [Maggie] Smith, who plays the formidable and disdainful Dowager Countess, has a lovely way of delivering words, always spaced to perfection. This is going to be a treat if you like a lavish period drama of a Sunday evening."
Similarly, when we roll our eyes at the corporate jets of the 1 percent, we are making an aesthetic judgment: wealth, pictured in that way, is distasteful. It’s the opposite of what its critics say it is. It doesn’t symbolize class—it symbolizes the lack of class. Money can buy an ostentatious array of Tiffany's jewelry, but as the Brits know, it can't buy you class.