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America's Political Obsession With the "Middle Class" Hurts Workers

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

If you hadn’t noticed, Hillary Clinton has officially embarked upon her 2016 presidential campaign. For the next 18 months, we’ll hear her appeal to American voters: her experience, her passion, and her goals. But for the moment, her campaign is ostensibly based on meeting the needs of the people she calls “everyday Americans,” a sturdy, meaningless replacement for that tired catchall: “middle class.” “Everyday Americans” removes political discussion even further from a consideration of class, which presents trouble for those among the working class and smooth sailing for those at the top. (And “middle class” had already done a fine job of that anyhow.)

On one hand, it’s refreshing that the Clinton campaign chose not to use "middle class" in its rollout video—the term doesn’t mean anything. A recent Pew Survey found that as many as half of all Americans describe themselves as middle class, with another 29 percent describing themselves as lower middle class; 11 percent would call themselves upper middle class. Only a scant 1 percent of respondents refer to themselves as upper class, while 10 percent identify as lower. 

Just who are these everyday Americans? Clinton’s choice of contrast—“the deck,” she says, “is still stacked in favor of those at the top”—gives a hint. And so does the video’s imagery, detailing the daily lives of restaurant and factory workers, among others. Judging by the interpretation of the commentariat, these everyday Americans are meant to represent the great, mythical American middle class.

It’s an odd state of affairs when nine out of ten people imagine themselves to be part of the middle class, as The New York Times’ Patricia Cohen recently pointed out. “The middle-class label is as much about aspirations among Americans as it is about economics,” Cohen observes. “But a perspective that was once characterized by comfort and optimism has increasingly been overlaid with stress and anxiety.”

Thanks to the economic volatility of the last several years, and thanks to the fact that many of those who imagine themselves to be part of the middle class have been disproportionately impacted by the recession compared to their ostensibly middle class compatriots, a sense of belonging in the middle class no longer correlates with the socioeconomic stability of a spot in the middle.

Which brings us to the other hand. Leaving out the middle class moniker might be a boon for the Clinton campaign, because it’s ceased to mean much of anything. But it’s also a net loss for those who struggle to make ends meet while laboring under delusions of middle class belonging, as it distances them from the type of politics that would most benefit them.

Over the last several decades, the middle class has enjoyed an upward and downward creep, subsuming much of what should be known as the upper class, as well as much of what was once known as the working class.

“Objectively speaking,” writes economist Doug Henwood, “the U.S. is one of the most class-divided societies on earth, a fact that has faded from public discourse, though it hasn’t completely gone from consciousness.” Part of the reason for the fade-out of class politics in public discourse, Henwood proposes, is the myth of "near-universal middleness” propagated by the lexical creep of the middle class. Who is responsible for the imaginary bulk of the middle class?

Henwood posits, citing Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Weber Cannon’s The American Perception of Class, that the “tendency to assimilate the upper reaches of the working into a broad, prosperous, and generally content middle class is a habit of the more upscale among us.”

It makes sense; elites stand to benefit from the illusory unity and stability of a broad middle, because that false sense of equality helps extinguish class-based agitation in politics. Stuart M. Blumin points this out in his book The Emergence of the Middle Class:

The issue of middle-class consciousness is a difficult one, for the favorable position of middling folk in American society and politics, in combination with the individualism that lies at the heart of the middle-class system of values, would seem to preclude the development of the kind of class-based solidarity that Marxists call class consciousness. And as ethnocultural political historians point out, political movements based explicitly on the grievances or aspirations of intermediate social classes are indeed rare in American history.

Making huge swathes of working people believe they belong with the middle class convinces them that they are already well enough off to be fine without class-based agitation, and also distances them from those with whom they genuinely share class concerns. When you add in that Great American Virtue of individualism—think postage-stamp lawns and neat, isolated suburban households—that the middle class is known for, solidarity among the working class becomes difficult to imagine.

And that's a shame, because the type of politics that will lead to better lives for the everyday Americans featured in the Clinton rollout video—that is, the factory workers, the food industry workers, and so on—will spring from the power working class people represent as an irreplacable part of the economy: If they don't work, nothing does. But that kind of collective action requires an awareness of one's class position that the grand, vacuous middle class label obscures. It's false hope.