The Democrats' Middle-Class Problem


Class, the Industrial Revolution’s great political dividing line, is enjoying Information Age resurgence. It now threatens the political future of presidents, prime ministers and even Politburo chiefs.

As in the Industrial Age, new technology is displacing whole groups of people — blue- and white-collar workers — as it boosts productivity and creates opportunities for others. Inequality is on the rise — from the developing world to historically egalitarian Scandinavia and Britain.

Divisions are evident here in the United States. Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama lagged in appealing to white middle- and working-class voters who supported Hillary — and former President Bill — Clinton.

Now, these voters, according to recent polls, are increasingly alienated from the Obama administration. Reasons include slow economic growth, high unemployment among blue- and white-collar workers and a persistent credit crunch for small businesses. These factors could cause serious losses for Democrats this fall — and beyond.

This discontent reflects long-term trends. Since 1973, for example, the rate of growth of the “typical family’s income” in the United States has slowed dramatically. For men, it has actually gone backward when adjusted for inflation.

The past few years have been particularly rough. About two in five Americans report household incomes between $35,000 and $100,000 a year. Right now, almost three in five are deeply worried about their financial situation, according to an ABC poll from March.

This should give Democrats an issue, theoretically. But to date, Obama and his party seem incapable of harnessing the growing middle- and working-class unrest.

In fact, according to recent polls, these have been the voters that Democrats and the president have been losing over the past year as the economic stimulus failed to make a major dent in unemployment.

Part of this problem lies with the party’s base, which the urban historian Fred Siegel once labeled “the coalition of the overeducated and the undereducated.” Major urban centers like New York, Chicago and San Francisco might advertise themselves as enlightened, but they have lost much of their middle class and suffer the highest levels of income inequality.

Representatives from these areas now dominate the party and reflect their bifurcated districts. They often stress the concerns of the educated affluent on issues like climate change and gay marriage, while their economic policies focus on the public-sector workers, “green” industries and maintaining the social welfare net.

Not surprisingly, this agenda does little for the middle-class — mostly suburban — voters.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), for example, won his margin of victory in largely middle- and working-class suburbs, where many voters had backed Obama in 2008, according to demographer Wendell Cox. Brown lost by almost 2-to-1 among poor voters — and also among those earning more than $85,000 a year.

Given the danger revealed by these numbers, Democrats and other center-left parties around the world should refocus their policies on issues — such as taxes, private-sector job creation and small business — that affect such voters.

For this growing class divide can be found globally: In China, for example, technological change and globalization have produced a new proletariat that, unlike in the past, is disinterested in warmed-over Maoist ideology.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the unrest at the Foxconn Technology Group. Workers produce cool products — for companies like Apple, Dell and Nintendo — but under such oppressive conditions that some have been driven to suicide.

Mounting protests about Foxconn’s employment practices, and a recent rash of strikes in China’s Honda plants, reveal the disruptive potential of this class conflict.

Even as China’s corporations and government become richer, inequality is widening. Indeed, over the past 20 years, China has shifted from an income-distribution pattern like that of Sweden or Germany to one closer to Argentina’s or Mexico’s. By 2006, China’s level of inequality was greater than that of the United States or India.

Not surprisingly, class anger has reached alarming proportions. Almost 96 percent of respondents, according to one recent survey, agreed that they “resent the rich.”

China’s class divides may be extreme, but similar patterns can be found almost everywhere. From India to Mexico, economic growth has led to a striking increase in the percentage of urbanites living in slum conditions.

In 1971, for example, slum dwellers accounted for one in six Mumbaikars. Today, they are an absolute majority.

This almost guarantees greater class conflict in the future, even as India’s economy booms.

“The boom that is happening is giving more to the wealthy,” said R.N. Sharma of Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “This is the ‘shining India’ people talk about. But the other part of it is very shocking — all the families where there is not even food security.We must ask: ‘The “shining India” is for whom?’”

This growing inequality in the developing world is already shaping global politics. The failure of the Copenhagen climate change conference can be largely ascribed to the unwillingness of China, India, Brazil and other developing countries to sacrifice wealth creation opportunities for ecological reasons.

Like their counterparts in New Delhi and Beijing, politicians in wealthier countries also face class conflict.

In Britain, for example, even a massive expansion of the welfare state has done little to stop the U.K. from becoming the most unequal among the advanced European democracies.

Alienation among white working-class voters — particularly those in the public sector or with modest small businesses — may have contributed to the Labour Party’s poor showing in the recent elections, according to Liam Byrne, the former Labour treasury secretary.

A similar phenomenon appears in Australia. Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, an icon among upper-class liberals, resigned in large part because of a precipitous decline in the polls among middle- and working-class suburban voters.

What is not clear is whether conservative parties can abandon their often slavish devotion to big corporate interests to take advantage of these new dynamics. For years, these parties have relied on divisive social issues, like immigration, to win working- and middle-class voters. But it’s possible that a focus on profligate government spending might yet increase the right’s appeal among mid-income voters.

As this current shift to greater inequality continues, the self-styled “popular” parties’ tendency to ignore class issues could prove disastrous.

Unless they start addressing class issues in effective ways, they may lose not just their historical base but the political future.

This article originally appeared in Politico.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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Lets not forget the Reagan tax changes

That's all fine and dandy, and largely true. You should also address the issue of drastically cutting the taxes on the super rich by the saintly Ronald Reagan.

That move alone caused the middle class to be the main tax source for the U.S. and forced most middle class couples to work, in order to be able to afford the previous level of "prosperity". Do not forget that one income per family has been more than enough until the Reagan changes took effect.

Our normal rat race has taken on a whole new meaning since then.

It is ironic that the middle class seems dissatisfied with Obama, when the real culprit of their misery was actually Reagan, decades earlier.


Well he's dead, isn't he? It's easier to blame the one that's not in the room.

All of this debate is taking place while America seems to be undergoing a kind of dialectic over its purpose in the world. Regaining a sense of purpose would settle some of these questions. Our purpose in the beforetimes seemed to be world-champion consumers, but what is our purpose today?

Teleological questions are becoming fashionable once again and could at least inform the debate a little.

Richard Reep, M. Arch.
Winter Park, FL

I think the problem isn't

I think the problem isn't whether you're a so-called "over-educated liberal snob" or a "Hard-workin'Merican'Male" but rather the fallout of automatic expectation. I am 33 years old and my parents were perhaps the last of an era where you could pretty much work hard, go to college- or not- get a decent stable job, buy a modest house and drive modest cars thus living in comfortable middle class lifestyle. This was expected because their parents had also had this sort of experience.

But with the economy becoming a truly global phenomena, education, health care, housing and so on are more expensive, jobs becoming increasingly less stable, and demand for raw materials from developing countries ever-higher, the expectation of security and that fabled middle class lifestyle has largely vanished. I see it every day because that is definitely the case here in the Bay Area where as the article correctly pointed out- the middle class has largely vanished.

We as Americans have been conditioned to think that we deserve to have that 3 bedroom house, the two cars in the driveway, access to perfect schools, smooth freeways, and so on. We expected this despite the fact that by global standards such conditions are a rarity. Whereas most countries to this day still have largely a poverty-stricken populations, we feel cheated when we can't have exactly what our parents had/have.

The reality is that the middle class phenomena in the US was a short-lived experience. One that was paid for dearly in the form of the great depression and later WW2. After those events, with the world in ruins we were suddenly in an ideal position, having control of the bulk of the manufacturing business, making the world's goods. Additionally, the US government stepped in and gave out low interest mortgage loans and severe cuts in college educations to GIs. On top of that the houses being built after WW2 were modeled on stick and slab houses engineered for housing military personal during the war. They were cheap, quick to build, and used less materials. So you had this perfect combination of plentiful jobs, affordable housing, affordable college, and so on. In other words the almost complete and total opposite of today. This period of incredibly stability would only last until the mid-60's. It was all a downhill slide afterward.

So in reality if you look at the history of the middle class in the US, it was perhaps the shortest lived period in our history. I myself have no allusions as to what my life is and will be like. I expect that I won't own as nice a house as my parents, have the same job security as they do (I'm on job No.7 as we speak) be able to retire near as early, or be able to count on local or national infrastructure such as schools, libraries, or other such items.

But the problem is that most people don't think this way. Most people seem to still be caught up the allusion that they are part of the grand scheme- the "American Dream TM". They fully believe in buying the 3 bedroom home on a culdesac, the new cars every 5-10 years, jobs to be relied upon, good schools for their college-bound children, and so on. They do so because they- just like any high school age teenager- feel the peer pressure of those around them, who also claw at trying to achieve this idealized middle class lifestyle they expect to have. As we can see by the sheer volume of foreclosures still occurring at record numbers, this attitude and expectation shows that Americans will put themselves at incredible financial risk just to obtain what they think they must have in order to meet the demands of "The American Dream". Wall Street knew what it was doing when the many firms who put together those toxic loans made them available to the purchasing public. What more could you ask for than a desperate consumer fully willing to pay the price- ANY price to get into that home and live the "American Dream"?

I think its about time that Americans step back and reconsider what the American Dream is really all about. In 1955 the average house was 700 square feet. Today its something like 3,000. In 1955 the avg. family owned a single car, a single TV set, and typically had a single working parent. By today's standards they were poor. But in 1955 the level of contentment in the US was at its highest recorded level. Ironically most Americans romantically refer to the 50's as the golden age of the American middle class... even though if we saw how the avg. person lived we might think otherwise if compared to today's Mcmansions and huge SUVs.

So in the end the American dream was not really about "stuff" but rather about stability. This means spending less, doing with what you absolutely need versus the largest and biggest you can afford. Perhaps we're already approaching that level. I myself will like most people my age just be happy to own a house- albeit a small one, and have a decent level of financial stability. That's all I ask. That's all anyone could ask.

The new maoism

What is disturbing about the class situation today is that the middle class appears to be undergoing a kind of forced Maoism. Professional--class jobs have vanished in many sectors, so those former professionals are now taking service jobs in an effort to keep some kind of income stream.

This abrupt economic drop is reminiscent of Mao putting doctors and professors to work mowing hay and will have lasting cultural consequences if it is not addressed soon.

Unfortunately, the insulated upper class appears to be turning its back completely on the situation, which guarantees a backlash. "What recession?" one might hear from them.

Richard Reep, M. Arch.
Winter Park, FL