OK, let’s see a show of hands. How many of you, this Labor Day, identify with the term “middle class”?
C’mon, raise those hands high. Say it loud – I’m middle-class and I’m proud!
Really? Is that all? That’s not many. And what’s with all those sneers out there? What, you don’t like that word, “middle class”? Wow, more smirks. All right, I see I’m going to have to play hardball. OK, people, I want to see some pay stubs. You all can’t be Thurston Howell III.
I could just about paper over the whole of northern California – at least down to Santa Barbara – with all the doomsaying, numbers-laden magazine articles bemoaning the erosion of the middle class in the last year or two. But other than those who hang posters of Elizabeth Warren in their rec rooms, nobody really seems to give a fig about the middle class. And I find that perplexing.
There is a ton of things that a patriotic American can look to as significant U.S. contributions to the overall betterment of the world – better access to medicine, great colleges and universities, civil liberties, computer and telecommunications technology, the Super Bowl, microwave popcorn … I could go on all night. Even the things we borrowed from other cultures, we often make better, from Albert Einstein to Fleetwood Mac to “The Office.”
But none of those things are as liberating and as widely influential as the creation of a strong, vibrant and dynamic middle class. And, yes, even though that moon-landing thing was pretty cool, it is the vast and ever-expanding middle class that is the glory of post-war American society.
So, why now that the middle class is on the verge of collapse, are there so few defenders of it?
It has been said by people smarter than I that Americans are not comfortable with the idea of class. Boy, ain’t that the truth. What’s weird about that is that we are a people who love forming allegiances, be it to our family names, hometowns, sports teams, brands of beer or alma maters. You can find people who develop deep loyalties and actually shape their cultural identities around such things as Apple, Trader Joe’s or the San Francisco 49ers – OK, that’s a bad example. But you don’t see “middle class” emblazoned on any sweatshirts or car bumpers.
Yet, class is one of the most important things to know about you, at least in terms of your place among other people. So, if there’s nothing inherently wrong with being neither rich nor poor, why all this bashfulness about standing up for the middle class?
A lot of it is the legacy of the political left from the 1960s. Somewhere along the line a middle-class standard of living got equated to “middle-class values,” an all-purpose but rather vague term of contempt that contained everything from a tolerance for mediocrity to a tendency for hypocrisy. And, in the generations since, we’ve somehow internalized that contempt for the middle class.
Is there moral flab to be found in middle-class people? Unquestionably, yes. But you can make the same kind of meaningless generalizations about the prejudices of working-class people, or the greed and vanity of upper-class people. Those classes, however, have their positive counterbalancing images of appeal, be it John Mellancamp’s T shirts and blue jeans, or Arnold Schwarzenegger smoking a cigar – OK, another bad example.
Where’s the icon of the middle class?
Celebrity culture also has contributed to the quarantine of middle-class consciousness. With fame comes fabulous wealth, and that’s a dynamic that makes it impossible for someone genuinely embodying a middle-class lifestyle to gain any kind of prominence in order to present a credible role model.
Congress used to look out for middle-class people because it actually contained some middle-class people. Personal wealth has created a threshold that makes running for high office a fantasy for regular folks. Our last middle-class president was Harry Truman who retired to his modest house in Missouri with little more than an Army pension of $112 a month.
Coincidentally, it’s Truman that presents the most compelling image of middle-class authenticity and decency. And he’s been dead for 40 years.
Perversely, the most prominent icon of middle-class life might be Warren Buffett who lives in the same nothing-fancy home in Nebraska he bought in 1958 for $31,000. And he’s one of the handful of the richest humans to have ever lived. What’s wrong with this picture?
Left to their own devices, societies generally separate consistently into two camps of a enormously wealthy few and a struggling, subsistence-living many. The middle class is an artificial construct. It is a ladder that allows people to transcend the circumstances of their birth and make something better of themselves, and what could be more American than that?
But like all ladders, the middle class has to be built and maintained. The American middle class represents the greatest triumph of the partnership between private enterprise and government. The rungs of that ladder were built with plentiful, well-paying jobs, sure, but also things like affordable college tuition, the G.I. Bill, safety-net social programs, mortgage tax deductions, etc.
Now, we have one political faction that finds its unseemly to climb that ladder only after they’ve already done so, and another that, having reached the rooftop, wants to push the ladder away.
Can’t anyone speak up for the middle class? Harry Truman, your country needs you.