The so-called “middle class.” We have been told that we need to foster it, cater to it, protect it, grow it and help more people get into it. We’ve been led to believe that it is where innovation occurs and jobs are created — a utopia of fairness. And of course, growing the economy “from the middle out” is the only way we can meet the challenges we face.
The degree to which this mantra was drilled into our collective conscience during the last election cycle would have made a gunnery sergeant snap to attention and salute. But when did we start to think and talk like this? Has protecting and growing the ranks of the most common among us become the rallying cry of American exceptionalism? Do those who use this term really mean to say “middle income”? We don’t use the term “lower class,” after all. And who gets to draw such lines? I mean, Heaven help any of us middle-classers if we manage to lift ourselves up into the ranks of the undesirable “upper class.”
If nothing else, the most recent campaign revealed the lens through which some see the American electorate: a divvied-up populace comprised of the elite untouchables and the working-class inferiors participating in a modern-day caste system whereby any hope of upward social mobility for the latter has been suspended in perpetuity.
But setting aside for a moment the folly of this mindset, has anybody stopped to ask the questions, “why is the middle so wonderful anyway, and does anybody truly aspire to be the middle part of anything?” After all, we find very few things middle appealing in other facets of our lives. Do we celebrate graduating in the middle of our class or argue that if we could just add more 50th percentile students we could lift up the class average? Are we born with the dream of topping out our careers in middle management? Do we get giddy when we read in the newspaper that our sports team sits in the middle of the standings, or blush with excitement when others refer to us as “middle of the road”? Do we rush onto an airplane early when we learn that we have been assigned that coveted middle seat?
You see, being in the middle is like being in the middle of nowhere, but on the way to somewhere. And by almost all accounts, being in the middle of anything is not where we want to stay. It’s synonymous with ordinary. The exceptional people who founded, grew and fought for this country weren’t satisfied with being ordinary.