Can America survive without its backbone, the middle class?

As the gaps within the classes widen, American society is starting to fracture.
Boarded up: Many who used to feel secure in “middle America” now feel left behind – Can America survive without its backbone, the middle class?

My friend J grew up in Chicago, but spent his summers in a small town on a Michigan lake. His family, because they came from the city and because they were “summer” visitors, were slightly more privileged than those who lived in the town. Nevertheless, the town considered itself “middle class” and the children observed no social distinctions playing together. J told me recently that he had been back to that town and found it utterly changed: shops were boarded up, houses were being repossessed, cars were old. He no longer had much in common with people he had known as children, some of whom were now unemployed, all of whom had far lower incomes than he.

J isn’t a hedge-fund manager or a plutocrat, but he is a member of the American upper-middle class, a group which is now sociologically and economically very distinct from the lower-middle class, with different politics, different ambitions and different levels of optimism. Thirty years ago, this wasn’t the case. A worker in a Detroit car factory earned about the same as, say, a small-town dentist, and although they might have different taste in films or furniture, their purchasing power wasn’t radically different. Their children would have been able to play together without feeling as if they came from different planets.

Now they couldn’t. Despite all the loud talk of the “1 per cent” of Americans who, according to a recent study, receive about 17 per cent of the income, a percentage which has more than doubled since 1979, the existence of a very small group of very rich people has never bothered Americans. But the fact that some 20 per cent of Americans now receive some 53 per cent of the income is devastating.

I would argue that the growing divisions within the American middle class are far more important than the gap between the very richest and everybody else. They are important because to be “middle class”, in America, has such positive connotations, and because most Americans think they belong in it. The middle class is the “heartland”, the middle class is the “backbone of the country”. In 1970, Time magazine described middle America as people who “sing the national anthem at football games – and mean it”.

“Middle America” also once implied the existence of a broad group of people who had similar values and a similar lifestyle. If you had a small suburban home, a car, a child at a state university, an annual holiday on a Michigan lake, you were part of it. But, at some point in the past 20 years, a family living at that level lost the sense that it was doing “well”, and probably struggled even to stay there. Now it seems you need a McMansion, children at private universities, two cars, a ski trip in the winter and a summer vacation in Europe in order to feel as if you are doing minimally “well”. You also need a decent retirement fund, since what the state pays is so risible, as well as an employer who can give you a generous health-care plan, since health care is so expensive.

I’m not going to argue about the economics of this shift in definition of “middle”, or the morality (of course, no one with a small suburban home and a car is “poor” by global standards). The point is that people’s perceptions have changed. Many who used to feel secure in “middle America” now feel, rightly or wrongly, left behind, and they don’t think they will ever catch up. Meanwhile, many of those who used to feel proud of coming from “middle America” now feel, like my friend, that they have little in common with their “heartland”. If this turns out to be a permanent change, the implications for American politics, even for Western politics, will be profound. For the past 50 years, Western democracy has flourished alongside the assumption of upward mobility: everyone could participate in the political system; everyone had a chance at improving his status; and everyone could hope, at least, that his children would live better than his parents had, in Britain, France and Germany as well as America. But if Americans are no longer “all in the same boat”, if some of them are now destined to live better than others, then will they continue to feel like political equals? If Britons, Frenchmen and Germans no longer have much in common with their countrymen, will they still want to take part in the same national debates? We don’t know yet – we’ve never lived without a “middle middle class” before – and we are about to find out.

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