Talking About Class
The other day, J.L. Wall asked in his post:
Can we really talk honestly and effectively about growing divisions between the top and the bottom without taking the middle half into account, too?
I left a cynical comment:
To be perfectly honest, no one really cares about the middle class. As long as you are in there, it’s assumed you’re doing just fine. Their money comes from a magical grove of money trees planted by the WPA during the New Deal.
What people worry about is the bottom and the top because it is assumed that it’s a zero sum game between these two groups. If the rich get richer it was because they stole it directly from the poor.
Well it seems that J.L. was closer to the mark than me, as evidenced by Mitt Romney’s latest case of foot-in-the-mouth disease:
I’m in this race because I care about America. I’m not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there, if we need to repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who are struggling, and I’ll continue to take that message across the country.
A big part of the reason that I am so dismissive of this kind of talk is two things 1) I hate political populism 2) I hate class warfare. Seeing those two omissions in print makes me feel a little bit like I’m stating the obvious. Most wonks have equal disregard for those things in principle. The trick is to maintain our resolve when the message is directed at us. I usually pride myself on disregarding the promises of politicians and try not to see myself in competition with the other classes in America. But then I think back to how excited I was about some of the ideas presented by Ross Douthat and Reiham Salam in their 2005 Weekly Standard piece:
A better way to approach the division between work and family life might be what sociologist Neil Gilbert calls a “life-course perspective,” with measures that would allow a mother (or father, for that matter) to provide child care full-time for several years before entering, or reentering, the workforce. For instance, the government could offer subsidies to those who provide child care in the home, and pension credits that reflect the economic value of years spent in household labor. Or again, Republicans might consider offering tuition credits for years spent rearing children, which could be exchanged for post-graduate or vocational education. These would be modeled on veterans’ benefits–and that would be entirely appropriate. Both military service and parenthood are crucial to the country’s long-term survival. It’s about time we recognize that fact.
I now realize I like these kinds of ideas because they directly reward my demographic group, which is middle class parents with just enough income to allow one spouse to stay at home with the kids (if they want to). Because I think stay-at-home parents do the Lord’s work in many ways then it’s easy to support policies that reward those choices. So I realize that I am just as vulnerable to red meat and making sure my class gets our piece of the pie.
The obvious take-away here is that we all know populism and class warfare are tools that politicians use to manipulate us. The question is, who among us can really resist it when the offer is made?