home Economy, North America, Politics The myth of the American middle class

The myth of the American middle class

Lyndon Johnson famously said, after Walter Cronkite’s criticism on air of his adventures in Vietnam, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Soon after, Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection.

We in America have an obsession with the middle of things: Middle America, the “middle class.” Reporters imagine that by presenting two opposing sides of a story, they will expose a truth that lies somewhere in the middle. Politicians desperately try to paint themselves as “centrists” to appease constituents who identify themselves as middle-of-the-road.

It’s very easy for politicians to claim that they’re going to help the middle class without seeming exclusionary—without anyone shouting “Hey! What about us?”–because almost everyone thinks of themselves as middle class. As Mychal Smith noted to me on Twitter the other night, “‘middle class’ is a lie Americans tell themselves . . . because no one wants to identify as working class.”

Smith has a point. Nor does anyone want to identify as upper class. Recall John McCain’s squirming on the campaign trail when asked how many houses he owned, and the ridiculous attempts by Sarah Palin in her $50,000 wardrobe to paint Barack Obama as some sort of out-of-touch elitist. The bounds of “middle class” are elastic, but nearly everyone identifies themselves as part of it—even when they’re excluding others.

Marx, of course, posited two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The idea of the middle class thus serves to blur those lines or create padding between them, depending on how you think about it. The middle class as it’s currently defined includes small business owners and white-collar workers and well-paid union laborers. It includes bankers and mechanics and waiters and restaurateurs and college professors. Some of those who work for others make far more money than business owners who employ several others, themselves “middle class.” The division into two classes, one which owns the means of production and one which does the producing, simply doesn’t adequately describe the situation in America in 2009, particularly since our economy is based less and less on production at all.

Production, after all, is now something done in other countries. Americans, instead, have a “knowledge economy,” and that economy relies not on goods but on ideas and creations that are largely stored, these days, as digital files—which are harder to quantify and control. As Cory Doctorow notes, discussing Chris Anderson’s new book Free, the economy is changing and some of the changes brought about by what he calls the “information revolution” simply don’t fit into the capitalist model we’re used to. Nor do they easily fit into a Marxist vision of two classes. And with the economic collapse, “middle class” is often less about your paycheck and more about what you know, since we’re all struggling to pay the bills.

As I’ve noted, in the new media economy, it’s increasingly easy to sequester oneself in a world of our own making, consuming only the media that reinforces our perceptions and remaining in contact only with people who think like we do. Instead of a large, unified middle class, we have a thousand microclasses as we segregate ourselves by income, education, political beliefs, etc. Walter Cronkite’s Middle America is gone along with him, and instead we have Rush Limbaughs and Rachel Maddows and Amy Goodmans and Sean Hannitys.

Thus there is little definition to the middle—it is a nearly meaningless self-definition. Yet by identifying as “middle class,” one identifies oneself as above some and below others. Thus the working class, once a proud designation, has become the “underclass,” a designation that usually implies people of color and carries a stigma that implies permanence and laziness at once: while the working class was doing something, the “underclass” is a drain on society. No wonder no one wants to identify as such anymore.

In the glory days of the labor movement, the class boundaries were still elastic, but there was no implicit definition of oneself as above others. With the decline of the idea of the working class, and the rise instead of a hybrid “middle class,” as Chris Hayes notes, we lost something important:

“With the decline and possible death of the American labor movement, we will lose not only a voice for equality and redistribution at a time when such ideas seem as quaint and vestigial as blood-letting and weather-gods. We will lose a fundamental conception of human togetherness, an understanding that our self-interest is inextricably bound with the interests of others who we may not even know. We will lose a form of mundane solidarity that doesn’t rely upon medieval associations of faith, kind or clan, one that requires that we push out the edges of who we think of as ‘us.’”

The elision of everyone into the middle has real benefits for those at the top. We saw the faintest beginnings of a recognition that what’s good for the rich isn’t good for everyone else with Obama’s plan to roll back Bush’s tax cuts on those who make over $250,000 a year, and even more so with the anger at AIG’s giving bonuses with taxpayer dollars. But still, for the most part, Americans are unwilling to recognize the existence of an upper class, whether they belong to it or not.

Reaganism encouraged Americans to identify upward, and Joe-The-Plumberism attempted to claim that small business owners would be the ones hurt by a proposed rollback of Bush’s tax cuts. Our aspirational politics have led us to accept the existence of an upper class above the middle class that most of us claim, because we all hope to someday join it; even though most members of the real upper class—the 1% of households that controlled 34% of privately held wealth as of 2005—deny that they have any special privileges.

What can we do about it? The way our economy has shifted, we no longer have clear class divisions, yet we do have an upper class that has concentrated its wealth greatly over recent years—according to G. William Domhoff, “Of all the new financial wealth created by the American economy in that 21-year-period, fully 42% of it went to the top 1%. A whopping 94% went to the top 20%, which of course means that the bottom 80% received only 6% of all the new financial wealth generated in the United States during the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s.”

Hayes noted the atomized nature of left politics, and pointed out that the new-media elite of the new economy might call attention to problems, but it breeds sympathy for the “underclass,” not solidarity across an imagined class boundary. The fact is that in today’s America, the boundary between the lowest class and the ephemeral middle class is far more porous than the boundary between the rich and the rest of us, and we could do worse than have all of us learn to identify once again as working class, whether we’re teachers or machinists or doctors—or journalists.

If anything good is to come of the economic meltdown, let it be this: that Americans finally understand that the idea that once you achieve middle-class status, you’re safe is a fallacy and always has been. Significant change won’t happen until we all realize that.


Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.

4 thoughts on “The myth of the American middle class

  1. It’s so different in the UK. We cling onto our working class roots like a badge of honour. It’s not so much about money here but culture.

    I’ve been a teacher for 12 years now but would never declare myself as middle class-my cockney accent just wouldn’t allow it.

    In the media the middle class and upper class have adopted ‘mockney’ accents to get on here-think Jamie Oliver and Guy Ritchie.

    However the simple fact is over the last decade or so, under a Labour government no less, the gap between rich and poor is now larger than ever. It is harder for working class kids to go to the top Universities (or any University) despite various initiatives.

    Education is the real way out and allows someone like me the benefit of choosing if I want to hold onto to my working class credentials or not.

    Unfortunately some kids see school as their enemy not as the very good friend it really is to them until it’s too late on in their educational career.

  2. This is an amazing post and so true. I recongize this problem every time I try to teach my freshmen college students about class: everyone identifies as middle class and very few people, if any, want to identify as working class or upper class. It’s such a strange problem. At any rate, great post. I wonder if it’s okay for me to post this on my blog as a guest post?

  3. Good evening!

    My name is Christian and I am an A-level student from Austria and I have to write an essay about the American society.
    One chapter of my essay is about the American middle class and I would like to ask you a few questions about it.

    It would be great if you could contact me via mail!


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