The American middle class, defined and redefined dozens of times, always seems to be in crisis. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of small businesses went under after several years, leaving their owners—unlike the rich—indebted.
Looking back at past and current political campaigns, the bipartisan appeals to the “forgotten middle class” constitute a series of coded phrases pointing to poverty as the fault of nonwhite populations themselves.
In the late 1800s, the little guy was already being pushed out of venues by mail-order sales (a precursor to Amazon). More recently, boom times—the 1920s and 1950s-1960s, most notably—brought a rush of opportunities that were unmatched, except perhaps by the successful niche marketers, like specialty restaurants, or, today, small-scale tech start-ups. As we have learned lately, bitter disappointment always lurks.
David Roediger’s new book, The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History (OR Books), echoes Lewis Corey’s best-selling The Crisis of the Middle Class (1935) in more than a few ways. Corey, an erstwhile American Bolshevik-turned-liberal-socialist, argued that the day was finished for the small manufacturer, while the white collar employee would not likely recover from losses during the Depression. The same office worker did recover, of course, a few years later in wartime and beyond.
But Corey was right about the inherent insecurity of middle-class status, resting on an accumulation of personal debts and an uncertainty about social status. By the 1950s, psychology had replaced Marxism in circles of the cerebral left. Perhaps, broadly defined in the way popular culture approaches most topics of social crisis as individual crises, psychology still rules today.
In the book’s opening pages, Roediger shares a chilling personal backstory: His father, a mid-level executive, kept a whiskey bottle in his office desk—no rare thing in the 1950s—and sunk into that bottle as the years passed, dying early.
Like me and so many others, Roediger grew up in a family burdened with a gnawing fear that debts would one day bring the house down. It didn’t for him, for me, or for most others in the white, lower-middle-class population. But the price of keeping things on keel was heavy on the wage earner and, in various ways, on every other member of the family.
Roediger does something that would never have occurred to Corey. He goes to the core of the racial element in “supposed middle-class” life, ill-defined by any economic or social certainty. This leads him to Stanley Greenberg, one of the key figures in Democratic Party polling and liberalism at large. Greenberg sometimes wavered across the liberal/radical spectrum, urging dramatic changes, but retreating to pessimistic views of the nonwhite community.
In Greenberg’s widely read volumes, the middle class included well-paid workers in various occupations, and homeowners worried about their lives and property, but it did not really include people of color, who remained in the cities and therefore outside of his vision of “typical” American communities.
Eventually, Greenberg became a highly paid political consultant for the notoriously manipulative political pundit James Carville, and thereafter for some of the nation’s worst polluters, and militant suppliers, not to mention global work against Bolivian activist and later president Evo Morales.
In short, as Roediger explains at length, “the middle class” category has hardly ever been racialized; that is, understood according to racial categories. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump based their appeals on “saving the middle class,” with a “middle class tax cut” and similar rhetoric. Even Elizabeth Warren’s third book was subtitled, “The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class.”
Who else deserved saving? The costs of this oversight are considerable, above all in portraying the nation as possessing a special destiny on the planet because of its status as “the middle class nation.” That status, more imagined than real, must apparently be defended, at any and all costs, no matter how vague and no matter how ominous militarily, ecologically, and otherwise.
Looking back at past and current political campaigns, the bipartisan appeals to the “forgotten middle class” (i.e., whites besieged by high taxes, by nonwhite neighbors, and by busing), constitute a series of coded phrases pointing to poverty as the fault of nonwhite populations themselves.
The multi-racial, hard-working and mostly underpaid service workforce of teachers, medical workers and public employees, even those successfully unionized, has never been accepted or understood on equal terms, even by some union leaders of the flagging blue collar workforce. These non-manufacturing workers of the helping professions could be successfully portrayed and were portrayed, in the counter-revolution in Wisconsin by Republicans in 2011-2018, as less worthy freeloaders on the public tax rolls.
Roediger hopes this harmful enduring myth of the middle class will not endure. But as he says, a Clinton victory in 2016 would have rested upon and reinforced the apparent success of political strategists within the Democratic party. Inciting rhetorical violence against “identity politics,” these high paid savants had nothing to offer but a minus, “limits set by what changes were permissible to capital.”
Donald Trump’s connections with the super-rich 1 percent seemingly provided Democrats yet another chance for the much-expected, long-awaited breakthrough of the near-left. Joe Biden has urged Democrats to respect their roots, to “show enough respect” for the white working class to bring them back home to where they belonged.
Predictably, Biden insisted, mid-campaign, that everybody called him “Middle Class Joe,” when in fact almost no one ever had.
David Roediger ends with the observation that election slogans will not govern the politics of tomorrow, and we can hope this is true. But it will be a fight, perhaps as strenuous as the fight was to defeat Donald Trump.
Paul Buhle wrote the foreword to the second edition of Corey’s Crisis of the Middle Class (Columbia University Press, 1994).
This post was originally published on Radio Free.