The past four years have been host to one of the most discordant political cycles in recent history, an atmosphere of vitriol and volatility that rose like a tidal wave from the churning waters of the Great Recession.
That wave crested last year, when a motley band of activists took over Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, sparking a nationwide movement that recognizes a hard line between the moneyed elite—the 1 percent—and the rest of us. In this narrative, we have the powerful on one side and the exploited on the other; and never the twain shall meet—except, perhaps, in open battle.
Meanwhile, across the fence, Republicans accuse the president and his Democratic supporters of being socialists determined to redistribute wealth from the top down by taking it from its rightful owners and giving it to the 47 percent of Americans who, according to Mitt Romney, “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” In this model, there are also two camps: The makers and the takers.
Both of these interpretations are compelling—and they make for great headlines—but they also happen to be over-simplistic and largely unrepresentative of the vast majority of us. There are millions of Americans, myself included, who don’t fit into either of these camps; we own modest homes, have private health care coverage, take vacations and eat out at nice restaurants. But at the end of the year, our net worth is pretty much what it was 12 months earlier. We are neither powerful, nor exploited. And though many of us depend on tax credits and government programs like Medicare and Social Security, we bristle at the suggestion we are moochers.
People like us are typically lumped under the rubric of “middle class,” and to listen to both political parties you’d think we are the belle of the ball this election year. So why is it that politicians have such a hard time talking to us?
For starters, divisive rhetoric tends to be lost on those in the middle. The whole “class warfare” meme that is so popular these days simply doesn’t resonate with middle-class voters. Unlike our forbearers in Europe, class identity has not played a strong role in our national development. There are rich people and there are poor people, but these identities are not codified in such a way as to reflect “class” in the purest sense of the word.
Class is about much more than material wealth; it implies a hereditary right to privilege—either through social standing or title. Sure, rich people in America get to grease the wheels more than most of us, but we are all riding the same bike. That isn’t the case in countries characterized by rigid class distinctions. In Britain prior to 1999, hereditary title alone was enough to win you a seat in the upper house of Parliament. By contrast, our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was born in a one-room log cabin in rural Kentucky with no familial link to the proverbial “ruling class.”
In lieu of an aristocratic tradition, America was built on a liberal model (liberal in the classical sense, not the political one) based on procedural democracy, the rule of law and the social fluidity inherent in equal opportunity. For decades this paradigm was the driving force of American entrepreneurialism. In 1861 Lincoln himself offered this assessment of the American laborer: “[I]nstead of being fixed to that condition for life, [he] works for a while, then saves, then hires another beginner as he himself becomes an entrepreneur.”
And for a while that’s exactly how it worked. Laborers started their own businesses, companies got bigger and hired more workers, and as those workers prospered so did the economy. Turn-of-the century Progressivism added new layers of protection for workers, and the New Deal created programs for society’s most vulnerable, but neither changed the fundamental operating model that made America unique and prosperous.
Yet today we find ourselves at a critical juncture, where globalization, corporatism and advanced technology are stripping jobs away from the segment of society that has helped define and sustain our democracy. Meanwhile, for decades U.S. tax policy has favored the very rich and the very poor, and has left the middle class holding the bill. Taxpayers who make $500,000 a year have seen their tax burden drop from a high of more than 80 percent in the 1960s to 35 percent in 2010, while wage earners making the equivalent of $50,000 a year—a solid middle-class living—are facing roughly the same tax burden they did in 1965 and only a fraction less than they did in the years following World War II.
It should come as no surprise, then, that people are dropping like flies from the middle class. A Pew study released last week finds that the percentage of Americans who say they are in the lower-middle or lower class has risen from a quarter of the adult population to about a third in the past four years. Still, when asked what “class” they belonged to, only 9 percent of respondents pegged themselves as members of the upper or lower classes. The remainder see themselves holding on somewhere in the increasingly tenuous middle.
And that’s where the real struggle lies. Because if we let the middle class in this country disappear we risk losing the glue that holds democracy together. In his essay, “The Future of History,” Francis Fukuyama notes:
“From the days of Aristotle, thinkers have believed that stable democracy rests on a broad middle class and that societies with extremes of wealth and poverty are susceptible either to oligarchic domination or populist revolution.”
For much of our history America’s strong middle class has insulated us from civil strife, the lure of communism and authoritarianism, and the class conflicts that bubble under the surface in nations across Europe, Asia and Latin America. It’s time our political dialogue reflected that truth.
When it comes to strengthening the middle class, politicians from both parties talk a good game; but when they focus on divisive rhetoric about makers and takers, oppressors and oppressed, those of us with the biggest stake in our country’s future stop listening.