So it looks like shortly after I gave up on Saturday night’s Republican debate, Rick Santorum said something interesting: that there’s no such thing as the middle class, because America is fundamentally a classless society.
Now, the second part of that claim is obviously, patently false. But I suspect that Santorum may be on to a partially correct conclusion based on false premises. Is American society stratified by class? Yes, absolutely. Are the top and bottom classes separated by a gooey center? Depends on what metric you look at. The middle class may exist as a (rapidly shrinking) income bracket, but as a sociopolitical signifier it obscures more than it illuminates. If you believe otherwise, consider this paragraph from Kevin Drum’s essay on the decline of organized labor (which, yes, does reference the “middle class” in its title):
Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels studied the voting behavior of US senators in the early ’90s and discovered that they respond far more to the desires of high-income groups than to anyone else. By itself, that’s not a surprise. He also found that Republicans don’t respond at all to the desires of voters with modest incomes. Maybe that’s not a surprise, either. But this should be: Bartels found that Democratic senators don’t respond to the desires of these voters, either. At all.
If the “middle class” has so little political clout with their own representatives (nearly all of whom are, by the way, exceedingly wealthy), then what do they have? I’m reminded of a debate I had with Matt Yglesias about a month ago over whether “workers” still existed as a class. Matt ended up saying that “your average workaday fat cat CEO is,” by virtue of his technical status as an employee “just a very well-compensated wage slave.” That did, and still does, treat me as a deeply wrongheaded claim. Workers, commonly understood, don’t sit on the boards of other corporations. They can’t max out contributions to political candidates, attend $5,000-dollar-a-plate fundraisers, or hobnob with their fellow wage slaves at Davos and Aspen. Nor do workers sit on top of the fat stock portfolios that, in recent years, were the main driver of inequality. There is a culture, sociology and politics to wealth, and mostly what that logic does is generate more wealth for the wealthy. The “middle class” has about as much access to that world as acknowledged members of the lower class.
If the middle class is anything, I suspect it is a historical curiosity; a moment in twentieth century American economic history during which union strength, the New Deal and WWII-era military policy all gave a large chunk of the working class the means to significantly increase their material wealth. Some members of that group even entered the upper class, but most of them just hovered around the upper echelons of the working class, only to be brought low by the current crisis.
The distinction between an “upper working class” (sometimes called, when referring to blue collar union members, a “blue collar aristocracy”) and a “middle class” might not seem like much, but it’s hugely important in terms of social and political clout. After all, when the post-collapse decline of the middle class began, it seemed utterly powerless to defend itself. Now one party wants to exacerbate the problem, and the other wants to preserve the political impotence of the non-rich, but bring relative comfort back to a slice of the lower class (e.g. pity-charity liberalism).
So allow me to ask a question that flips around Matt’s turn of phrase regarding “well-compensated wage slaves”: If middle class Americans have so little political power, and if so much of their relative material comfort is merely a product of the 1%’s largesse, why should we think of them as more than just generously compensated members of the underclass?