The Sinking Middle Class

A POLITICAL HISTORY


DAVID R. ROEDIGER


“As the nation burns and the future appears uncertain, David Roediger delivers another incisive, timely, clear-eyed analysis of class and race in America. His point is clear: another world won’t be built by pollsters or slick election strategies aimed at saving the middle class. We have to grow a movement. ” —Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

“A consistently pathbreaking historian.” —Monthly Review

“No contemporary intellectual has better illuminated the interwoven social histories and conceptual dimensions of race and class domination.” —Nikhil Singh

“Brilliant and insightful... Explores the ways in which appeals to save the middle class in electoral politics harm the very constituencies they purport to help.”
—George Lipsitz, author of How Racism Takes Place


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About the Book

Joe Biden’s current emphasis on the “American middle class” is typical of centrist Democrat strategy. It is used as a cudgel to defend the party against more radical demands that could win over working-class voters and non-voters. For Republicans, it provides a foil for disingenuous appeals to the “white working class.” Donald Trump’s 2016 victory made full use of such rhetoric.

Yet, as David Roediger makes clear in a pointed and persuasive polemic, this obsession with the middle-class is relatively new in US politics. It began with the attempt to win back so-called “Reagan Democrats” by Bill Clinton and his legendary pollster Stanley Greenberg. It was accompanied by a pandering to racism and a shying away from meaningful wealth redistribution that continues to this day.

Drawing on rich traditions of radical social thought, Roediger disavows the thinly sourced idea that the United States was, for much of its history, a “middle-class” nation and the still more indefensible position that it is one now. The increasing immiseration of large swathes of middle-income America, only accelerated by the current pandemic, nails a fallacy that is a major obstacle to progressive change.

264 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-302-0 • E-book 978-1-68219-242-9

About the Author

David Roediger author photo

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David R. Roediger teaches American Studies at the University of Kansas. His books include Seizing Freedom, The Wages of Whiteness, How Race Survived U.S. History, and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness and Working toward Whiteness. His book The Production of Difference (with Elizabeth Esch) recently won the International Labor History Association Book Prize. He is past president of the American Studies Association and of the Working-Class Studies Association. A long-time member of the Chicago Surrealist Group, his work grows out of engagement with social movements addressing inequality, from the United Farm Workers grape boycott to Black Lives Matter.

Read an Excerpt

THE TIME OF ENDLESS ELECTIONS

Over the last thirty years, this book argues, self-serving, vague, and often empty political rhetoric regarding “saving the middle class” has provided the language for rightward political motion finding its way even into unions. Put forward first by the Democrats, it has debased how we understand social divisions in the United States and sidelined meaningful discussions of justice in both class and racial terms. In the last decade, the rise of an allied language tying political possibilities to the “white working class” has done much the same work in telling us why dramatic social change is impossible given the supposed, and supposedly understandable, defensiveness of a group named by a collective noun hardly better defined than the middle class.

To insist on these points implies no golden age that we should yearn to recapture. The languages of mainstream electoral politics have offered only very loosely drawn conceptions of class, and still less that is useful on race and class at their intersection. The people, the yeomen, Americans, free labor, the progressives, the forgotten men, and the Silent Majority, busily realizing Manifest Destinies, making New Deals and traversing New Frontiers–all left much unspecified in the interests of putting together winning coalitions. However, they did so in eras when electoral politics did not nearly so thoroughly define the universe of all things political and preoccupy everyday life for so many—while fully alienating an equally massive number who often conclude that they couldn’t care less about that thing called politics. Prior elections gave those in the US a language vaguely defining and liquidating class every four years, not every day of the year. The story of the great modern Democratic conjuring trick of making the unspecified but clearly white middle class define the limits of possibility along meager and austere neoliberal lines thus allows us to consider how the media and the candidates make such class terminology both a series of platitudes and a seemingly exciting insider’s argot underpinning liberal warnings against going too far.

The New(s) Toy: Political Soundbites of Class

 “What characterizes consumer society is the universality of the news item,” the theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote half a century ago, “All political, historical and cultural information is received in the same–at once anodyne and miraculous–form of the news item.”[1] The US writer Waldo Frank had anticipated Baudrillard by four decades, writing in The Re-Discovery of America that “THE NEWS IS A TOY”—that is, a seemingly wonderful novelty and one immediately requiring replacement with a new wonder.[2]  To update this wisdom for the contemporary United States we would need to add that the news item is overwhelmingly the soundbite of alleged political news, and that anodyne must now be in boldface. Drowning in political news items, especially on television and in social media, we nevertheless have generated only the barest beginnings of a renewed radical political thought, almost all of it confined to electoral politics and to supporting candidates continuing a veneration of the middle class and, in a minor key, discoursing on the need to pay attention to the “white working class.”

The ease with which we assume that being interested in politics means being interested in election news contributes to the huge advantages in defining the commonsense of class and race held by those who follow the electoral cycle and its logic religiously. Elections now rarely seem anything but imminent and historic. We heard in 2018 of the most important election of our lifetime and as soon as it was over candidates announced for the infinitely more important 2020 presidential vote. Nor is creep toward an omnipresent election cycle driven only by candidates, cable news, and the desperate need to raise money to campaign. Many of us desire those electoral news items, desperately wanting to be seen as being first to know them, and count that as being engaged in politics. People ask me if I heard what Chris Matthews or Rachel Maddow said last night and I can’t always say of course not.

Against all of the chatter it is hard to understand the wisdom of the political scientist and class warrior Adolph Reed, Jr., who writes “Elections are much more likely to be effective as vehicles for consolidating victories won on the plane of social movement organizing than as shortcuts or catalysts to jumpstart movements.”[3] Reed’s point here is overwhelmed by the self-perpetuating tendency to register the enthusiastic traffic in electoral news as itself a sign of a quickening of political action. Looking to 2020 the venerable left activists Carl Davidson and Bill Fletcher, Jr. warn sternly that left must learn yet again that “ELECTORAL POLITICS IS NOT A SIDESHOW.” Indeed, the problem that Davidson and Fletcher, Jr. identify with centering elections is not that they are endless but that they end.[4]

Delivered in soundbites and tethered to candidates all about saving the middle class or listening to the white working class, most talk about national elections proves a poor vehicle for learning about social divisions. Nor does it energize imagination of what it might be possible to accomplish at the level of the community or workplace.  Two decades ago, the logic ran that electing the Democrats came first, and was only then followed by card-check and other labor law reforms, and then organizing. Now you hear that it would be good to have a stronger labor movement membership in the service of electing Democrats as the end goal. Pulling activists from organizing campaigns to electoral ones usually goes unremarked and such reallocation may seem more exciting to the activists who are moved.

The very way that we see the working class narrows when electoral victory is the watchword. We struggle to remember those who choose not to vote, or who are prevented from doing so, as recently arrived and/or undocumented, as felons, as workers frequently moving around—that is, a substantial majority of poor and working people in the United States—when the by assumption is that politics largely equals voting and talking about elections. In that sense the very composition of the working class is obscured, not only by politicians shoehorning so many working people into a simplified middle-class category, but also because those most urgently needing to organize live outside electoral politics. We lavish attention on the split, close in the recent past, between the Republican and Democratic votes of working-class whites, searching for deep meaning in small fluctuations while a larger share of this group does not vote.  In pursuing electoral analyses even radicals follow the example of TV pundits and the patterns of most quickly available voting data to construct simplistic definitions of class that have little to do with social relations. Thus income—above or below $50,000 a year—or education—college or not—somehow define a class relationship.[5]

Donald Trump has helped assure that passionate embraces of electoral politics and its attendant drumbeat of saving the middle class seem urgent and meaningful. It is so hard to argue that he is just a garden-variety representative of one wing of the elite that there are, inevitably and not wrongly, even self-proclaimed anarchists who campaign against Trump.[6] Whether it is that he presents a definable fascist threat, that he winks at knowing that he provides a pole around which a growing alt-right and white nationalist movement accretes, or that he is just a loose racist talker emboldening other racists, a sexual predator, a packer of courts with reactionary judges, a jailer of children, and/or an authoritarian eager to suspend civil liberties,  Trump so alarms us that politics as usual on the liberal side seems compelling even if we’d never otherwise speak of the middle class as the key to forward motion.

In the Media