Yesterday, conservative theologian R. R. Reno wrote an editorial for the New York Times entitled “How Both Parties Lost the White Middle Class.” For Reno, the populism of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is the result of a broken covenant between the two parties and the white majority. The fear and anxiety of the white middle class, who live on economically shaky ground, deal with issues of drug abuse, family instability, and dwindling levels of education has not only been ignored by the political elites on the left and right, but has been exasperated by them. Both parties, Reno claims, see the white middle class as standing in the way of progress. To the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties, “the white middle class has no role to play in the multicultural, globalized future they envision.” Trump and Sanders offer hope. Not through their policies, but through their rhetoric. They offer the white middle class a role to play in remaking the world– whether it is returning to some nebulous past where “America was great,” or joining a revolution that reimagines the economic order.
I’d like to start my response by pointing out what is left unsaid here: that the white middle class once held power that was not extended to minorities of any class. In fact, their very existence was created by denying similar wages and protections to minorities (not to mention the gendered component). And the notion that this power has been completely eradicated are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, that power IS a major player in Trump, Cruz, and Sanders campaigns. And if Iowa is a harbinger of the election cycle, the fear, anger, and self-righteousness of the white middle class is going to exert itself strongly on this presidential election. Over half the voters in both parties rejected moderate establishment candidates, preferring the outsider populism of what would normally have been fringe candidacies. This is meaningful.
However, it is revisionist history to paint the white middle class as powerless victims against the elites of the left and right. In many ways, the white middle class voted themselves into this mess. And to pin it on both parties equally is laughable. And it is made all the more absurd by pretending that race has had nothing to do with this disaster (for god’s sake, race is in the damn identifier). The white middle class wasn’t forgotten by the party elites– it was destroyed by the forces of racial fear, divided interests, and the craven avarice of the GOP.
To really understand the fall of the white middle class you need to understand where it came from. The middle class, as we imagine it today, is a construct of the industrial age. Early America, the one our Founders created, had no such thing. There were wealthy merchants and plantation owners, poor yeoman farmers, and little in between. With the rise of industrialization in the decades after the Civil War a small class of professionals emerged– with skill enough to make reasonable salaries, but lacking the capital to be true elites. Still, the majority of Americans remained part of the massive poor, working class. These unskilled laborers were paid little, worked long hours in unsafe environments, had no safety net, and were often displaced by younger, cheaper, and often immigrant competitors. As part of a larger social revolution referred to as the Progressive movement, workers unionized to collectively bargain with capital owners, pushed reforms through state and federal government that enforced minimum wages, safety conditions, reasonable work days/weeks, and a host of other protections. Progressives on both sides of the aisle worked with the labor movement to improve the lives of white middle class Americans in the early 20th century. This laid the groundwork for the rise of the white middle class.
The true birth of the white middle class is in the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR’s response to the depression would spread the gains of the Progressive movement across the nation– finally brining the rural south into the industrial age and transforming the southwest into a livable area. The creation of government programs that provided home mortgages and college tuition to white working and middle class veterans increased the white standard of living and provided capital that could be passed from one generation to the next. We subsidized the development of an interstate highway system that would connect these new, all white housing communities to larger metropolitan areas. American industries flourished in the 40s and 50s, as the economy of Europe was in tatters following the destruction of World War II, spurred on by the break-neck speed of technological innovation. White labor used race as a wedge to control the numbers of the workforce, as keeping the number of workers “qualified” for most jobs in the hands of white workers limited the supply and improved bargaining position. To put it simply, the “Leave it to Beaver” white middle class utopia was created by a confluence of government programs, labor agreements, technical growth, and a lack of global economic competitors. Those who lived through the Great Depression saw this as just rewards for surviving the plunder of the greedy speculators and winning a grand, global war. Their children would come to think of this status quo as natural and just. Their grandchildren yearn wistfully for a return to the glory days. Unfortunately for the white middle class, this status was but a moment in the stream of history, lost almost as soon as it was found.
The 1960s were the beginning of the end for the white middle class. As the issue of race was forced to the forefront of national discussion by black activists, the two major political parties were forced to recalibrate their national coalitions. Prior to this, neither party had shown any interest in the condition of blacks in America. The discourse centered on economic policies and the lessons of the depression. And the Democratic party’s position dominated. It supported the expansion of government in ways that supported the development of the white middle class. As race entered the discussion, Richard Nixon was able to build a new coalition centered on the disaffected southern racist elite, an emerging southern and western Christian evangelical movement, and the Goldwater intellectual conservatives. This “Southern Strategy” broke up the Democrats long hold over the south and sparked a new national debate. Culture replaced economics as the focus of most political discourse. The Democratic party came to represent liberal social movements– black rights, feminism, environmentalism, and anti-war. The Republican party painted itself as the champions for segregation (though they would abandon this by the 70s and return to the euphemism of “states rights”), and the opponents of multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and moral decay (loosely defined as sexual freedom, homosexuality, divorce, abortion, birth-control, and sex education). Democrats continued to support a pro-labor position that tried to prop up the quickly decaying state of the white middle class. But the white middle class largely ignored this position– their other identities, be it their Christian, pro-gun, anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-“Equal Rights” or a whole host of other wedge issue identities, became more important to them than their work. By the early 1990s the white middle class increasingly voted to dismantle the very institutions that made them.
Globalization and mechanization were already destroying the industrial base that had helped make the white middle class possible. In truth, there was little that either political party could have done to stop this process. The white middle class would have to adapt if it wanted to survive. As jobs increasingly shifted from non-skilled trades to those requiring at least a modicum of eduction/training, the white middle class collectively agreed to shift the burden of paying for that training on to the student/worker of the future. Stripping community colleges and state universities of tax-funding, they made the path forward for their children increasingly difficult. Ignoring the way their own lives had been shaped by government programs that used tax dollars to provide collective goods like education, housing, and infrastructure white middle class Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers largely embraced a small government perspective that argued against government regulation of business and decreasing the tax burden through eliminating social programs and public funding.
Lament the fall of the white middle class if you want. But know they played a full and active role in their own demise.
Even as they were busy killing the Golden Goose, the white middle class was decrying their demise and drawing false conclusions about its origins. Movements like the Tea Party captured this anger. They knew things were not what they once were. They saw their jobs disappearing. They blamed immigrants and the Wall Street elite. They saw the composition of their communities changing and the idea of normal or socially acceptable changing all around them. They blamed black agitators and the “homosexual agenda.” They saw their children saddled with enormous debts from pursuing a now necessary education. They blamed greedy administrators and the government. They knew that there was increasingly little difference between being middle class and being poor. They blamed government handouts for making poverty too easy.
Trump, Cruz, and Sanders offer two paths forward for the white middle class. Trump and Cruz offer a cultural path. They would have you believe that what was lost can be recaptured by returning to the “values” and mores of yesteryear. They promise to keep America white, Christian, well-armed, and poorly taxed. Sanders offers an economic solution. He wants to restore higher tax-rates, increase government spending on programs that cater to the white middle class, and create a more equitable distribution of wealth. Which one of these plans sounds like it will do more to restore the white middle class?
Frankly, I’m not interested in restoring the white middle class at all. If the middle class can only exist as a racially exclusive voting bloc, let it stay dead. I prefer my revolutions to be more colorful and just.