First Principles April 2007

The Phantom Menace

What war on the middle class?
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Englishmen are thought to be preoccupied with social class, and it pains me that I am about to conform (not for the first time) to stereotype. In fact the stereotype is out of date. You might think I’m protesting too much, but the truth is I gave hardly a thought to the issue for years—not until I came to live and work in the supposedly classless United States.

By the time I left England in 2005, class was no longer a very interesting subject. Of course you could still divide the country’s people according to sociologically pregnant signifiers such as manners and elocution. You can do that kind of dividing up almost anywhere, including here, since in this sense there is no such thing as a classless society. Politically speaking, however, class in England lost the last of its salience in the 1990s. Today you rarely, if ever, hear a British politician mention the subject.

You could not say the same of the United States, though, could you? In this country, voters and politicians seem to think and talk about little else, at least when it comes to domestic affairs.

The middle class of this country, our his­toric backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table. Our work­ers know this, through painful experience. Our white-collar professionals are beginning to understand it, as their jobs start disappearing also.

That was Senator James Webb, in the Democratic Party’s much-praised response to President Bush’s State of the Union address. He was even more outspoken last year in an article for The Wall Street Journal, aptly titled “Class Struggle”:

The most important—and unfortunately the least debated—issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century.

Webb was wrong to say the issue is not much debated. The middle class and its many burdens and grievances are the organizing idea for almost everything Democrats and Republicans alike have to say about the economy. And it’s not just politicians. Commentators are cheering them on. (Lou Dobbs’s new book defines this resurgent populist genre in its title: War on the Middle Class.)

How strange this American appeal to class interests is, at least to an Old Worlder like me. England used to have, in the European fashion, three classes: posh gentry, professional bourgeoisie, and manual-laboring working class. Middle-class was a term of disapprobation: To call somebody middle class was to say they were smug and complacent. Clever English progressives, whose political home was the pre-1994 Labour Party, spoke up for the working class; dull Tories, “the Stupid Party,” were the traditional representatives of the middle class. Then Margaret Thatcher broadened the base, and begat Tony Blair; and class largely disappeared from the parties’ calculations.

America’s class structure, judging by how often politicians refer to it, has increasing political weight. But the United States appears to lack a working class—the whole point, as Marx explained, of having classes in the first place. Instead it has rich people; a politically impotent underclass (for whom nobody speaks up); and a remarkably expansive, proud, and patriotic middle class, which both parties woo. The incomes of Americans identifying themselves as middle class might run from $25,000 (about half of median household earnings) to 20 or 30 times that. In America, it is scarcely exaggerating to say that if you aren’t actually poor, and if you have fewer than three homes and do not commute in a limousine or helicopter, you call yourself middle-class.

The vast width of this middle, some three-quarters of the population, has long been a great source of economic strength to the country. I am not the first to notice that America has exalted its bourgeois convictions on the importance of work, education, and self-reliance, or that those are the values that give strongest support to enterprise, innovation, and economic growth.

The heft of the country’s middle class has been a political asset, too. Since the poor don’t vote and the rich are too few to mention, the middle class chooses all by itself who runs the country. The electorate is divided, to be sure, but mainly by noneconomic values. The convergence of perceived economic interests means that the political parties in the U.S. are both far closer to a common economic center than their European counterparts are, and closer to each other than they themselves would like to admit. Policies are presented—and to some extent, at least, must be devised—in such a way as to appeal to this great, broad mass of middle-class Americans. And that is good. If you doubt it, study some European economic history.

However, when politicians and commentators talk about a “war” on the middle class, that is not so good. Invoking an enemy who is prospering at the expense of most (“decent, hard-working”) Americans is unconducive to wise policy. It casts the problem as an issue of distribution—a struggle for the spoils. But the prospects of the great mass of Americans, as a matter of arithmetic, cannot be much improved by mere redistribution. There are too few designated losers.

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