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 NewGeography.com 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