Once, it was enough to accuse your opponents of waging class warfare, the well-known practice of pitting one socioeconomic segment of Americans against another.
Now, rather than exploiting whipped-up class consciousness for their own gain, today’s politicians are actually using government to deliberately attack and destroy the most beloved class of all.
The national consensus is clear: The war is on — and the only question is who’s doing the fighting. “The war against the middle class,” Rush Limbaugh declares, “is being waged by Barack Obama.” All across the country, says Zaid Jilani of Think Progress, Republican legislation is set to “decimate the American middle class.” A quick stroll through the Internet reveals that labor unions, the congressional leadership, Chris Christie, the rich and the State of Michigan, to name a few, are all waging war on the middle class.
Why this new, ubiquitous obsession? Policy does matter. But government does not have the power of life or death over American prosperity. The logic that sees a malevolent partisan scheme behind every index of middle-class pain feeds a bipartisan myth as willfully misleading as it is perversely comforting: that the only thing standing in the way of an ever-more-prosperous middle class is a clutch of officeholders pushing an implacable, irrational ideology.
Alas, the middle class is in poor and declining health for reasons that have little to do with anyone’s federal machinations. A traditionally middle-class life is not, even in good times, a default position or a place of repose. It’s work. In order to do it well, you’ve got to think, in your heart as well as your head, that it’s worth it. And right now, we’re seeing a massive downgrade in the goods and experiences that have typically been understood to make middle-class life worth it.
Illegitimacy, once the province of the very rich and very poor, is now a growing middle-income phenomenon. Why? Because the government is making life so tough that Americans are being driven to reproduce out of wedlock? Or because traditional marriage and the traditional family are simply losing their appeal as benefits that make working to stay middle class worth it?
Large lifelong debts, once a luxury or a disgrace, are now the very hallmark of middle-class parents and their collegiate children. Is it because the government is ruining them? Or because there is so little hope, without big debt, of moving up and out of the middle class?
A new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts reveals that nearly one in three Americans who grew up middle class have now moved downward. Correlating factors include divorce, hard drug use and a lack of a college education. That betokens a weakening of the discipline that kept the middle class together. But we do well to realize that traditional “bourgeois” morality sustained and strengthened the middle class because its goods — family, sobriety, general knowledge — were actually cherished in themselves. The upper- and lower-class characters who dominate our popular imagination embrace a different set of moral values. And, increasingly, the people in the middle do too.
Then consider economic values. Three types of work dominate the middle-class landscape — entrepreneurial, white-collar employed and corporate managerial. The dimming allure of these jobs is not primarily the fault of government. Our system of middle-class education does not (and cannot) cultivate the confidence, independence and proactivity of the entrepreneur. Not even the most emotive human resources staff can pump excitement into the dreary reality of “information work” captured in film, television and nonfiction books like Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft.” Young Americans looking for authentic life plans commensurate with the effort they require gain little sense of accomplishment from the plaques, perks and titles that once drove millions to dream of working their way up one day to be one of ever more senior vice presidents.
The true character of the middle class is lost if we view it as a level of net income threatened by Democrats or a level of net benefits threatened by Republicans. It’s a way of life that huge numbers of people need to aspire to — and not in the way we aspire to figure out how to find the kind of happiness that’s right for us.
The promise of the middle class is that its goods supply that happiness — that it’s not up to us to figure out how to live well. The income is there to fund those goods. If you don’t want them, chances are you think middle-class life either costs too much in toil or pays too little in money.
The old premise of the class-warfare charge was that lower-class Americans were beholden to government largesse and middle-class Americans weren’t. Now, it’s evident that the prosperity level of every class is structurally dependent on federal subsidies funded with deficit spending. This socioeconomic shift is playing out along with an interrelated change in mores. The middle class is less special than ever — not so much because it’s under special assault, but because we privilege the moral, social and cultural fruits of middle class life less and less.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.