The Mad, Mad Middle Class

Isaiah J. Poole

You may not agree, as Sara Robinson provocatively suggests, that the country is primed for revolution. But there is no doubt that large numbers of middle-class people are mad, really mad, about the damage Bush-league conservatism has done to the country and to their futures.

In fact, comments in a new Democracy Corps report, based on focus groups of Republicans and Democrats in Orlando, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio, reveal deep anger and frustration over policies that favor the wealthy and pull the ability to meet their basic aspirations further from their grasp.

Note comments like these:

  • Columbus man: “They talk about the economy as working for the very wealthy and I read in the New York Times that $200,000 per year is the new $100,000 per year in salary…That’s the standard of living to feel like you’ve really made it in America, $200,000 a year. For most people, that’s unattainable. They’ll never see that in two lifetimes. So I think it’s unfortunate that there is one-tenth of one percent of Americans own forty percent of the wealth in this country. That’s an obscene number. It’s a disgusting number.”
  • Orlando woman: “I don’t like people having like no-bid contracts over there [in Iraq]. I think that has really escalated the cost of the war too. I mean this war is just unbelievable and the cost and the money could be going to help New Orleans, use it on domestic programs and helping other nations.”
  • Columbus woman: “The war in Iraq, the amount of money being spent over there, and the cost of oil. It’s kind of all tied in. And then all of that filters down eventually to everyday people. And all of those costs eventually fall on our shoulders. On shoulders that are already pretty well packed.”

From the rising costs of fuel to the effects of the mortgage crisis, the Democracy Corps sessions reflect a middle class that feels under siege. And the traditional conservative palliatives, as far as these people are concerned, no longer cut it.

When the focus groups were presented with two economic messages — one based on Republican stump speeches that focuses on making the 2003 tax cuts for the wealthy permanent and an alternative that emphasized such items as investment projects, extending unemployment insurance and child tax credits, these prospective voters were, in the Democracy Corps words, “overwhelmingly drawn” to the more progressive message.

Here’s how a Columbus participant saw it:

It sounds like to me that the Republicans want to make the wealthy wealthier. Cut their stock dividend tax, they should have to pay taxes on that. I have to pay taxes if I pull my money out of my 401K. I have to pay a fee. So I think that they should be taxed just like we are, us working class people. The higher end market of people should be taxed just like I am. What taxes I pay, the percentage of the same taxes I pay should be the same taxes they pay for the money that they make.

And in Orlando…

You know if we start eliminating all those wonderful tax loopholes for corporations and requiring the wealthy and big corporations to pay their fair share we are going to have more money. It just makes sense.

Andrea Batista Schlesinger, who will be a featured speaker at Take Back America 2008, wrote about this middle-class anger almost two years ago in a way that now rings more true than ever. Her point was that “middle class does not equal middle ground”:

Advocating for the middle class isn’t inherently some kind of political compromise or centrist bargain, a la the Democratic Leadership Council. Raising the minimum wage is a middle class issue. Progressive immigration policy is a middle class issue. Reining in the power of industries to dictate our economic, energy, and health care policies is a middle class issue. Sound trade policy is a middle class issue. Just because you’re talking about the middle class doesn’t mean that your policy initiatives must consist only of tax credits and deductions that apply to a narrow income range. Advocating for the strengthening and expansion of our middle class shouldn’t just be political code for “I’m inoffensive.” It should mean that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to create the economic policy that will directly benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans.

The seduction of Reagan-era sophistry — such as the line brandished by self-proclaimed conservatives campaigning for office that they trust the American people instead of the government, as if they had nothing to do with separating government from its role as an instrument of the people — has some residual strength. So does the conservative tactic of pitting groups against each other — hence the way illegal immigration, rather than bad trade and tax policies, surfaced as a reason why middle-class wage-earners were falling behind.

Still, the focus group analysis concludes, “voters are starving for a new economic vision that will strengthen the middle class and get our country back on the right track.”

Progressives have the basics for that vision, but the challenges are to color in the details, inject it into the political debate in ways that touch both the anxieties and aspirations of middle-class families, and make sure that middle class voters know that there is an independent political force that will be fighting for their interests — working with the new White House leadership when it can, and confronting it when it must.

At Take Back America 2008 in March, progressive activists will have a prime opportunity to make that happen.

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