American Liberalism’s Middle Class Fetish

by Michael Blim

ScreenHunter_14 May. 02 11.12 For America’s liberals, these are soul-trying times. The romance with Barack Obama is over. They have discovered, as one pundit in the Washington Post put it, there he is an Eisenhower Republican. In fairness to Obama, he never promised to be anything else, as perceptive commentators before the election noted. Yet, as the stuff of liberal wish-fulfillment, Obama could not be resisted: a self-identified African-American, a Harvard lawyer trained by some of the best minds liberalism still possessed, and a product of Hyde Park Chicago liberal patronage with some church-related street organizing thrown in, Obama embodied the dream of a new multicultural liberalism that would overcome social tensions by the force of his example. And liberalism would become the majority creed once more.

The economic crisis of the last three years has put paid to the wish, and the Obama administration shows every indication of putting an end to American liberalism, the one hundred-year plus political movement that sought a state dedicated to human improvement, equal opportunity, and the regulation of capitalism.

American liberalism arose at the turn of the 20th Century when the middle class produced by our nation’s massive industrial great leap forward began to make money and to thirst for the power to remake American society in its own image. It strived to make an America that was educated, efficient, and fair. Convinced that social problems could be solved through scientific study and pragmatic policy-making that prescribed specific remedies, American liberalism sought to regulate business abuses, restore competition in markets, and to build, albeit incrementally, a welfare state. It sought the upper hand politically by eschewing social democracy, thus rejecting any real need for power sharing with labor and the working class. Ensnared by its own narcissistic self-regard, it imagined itself the guardian of the general interest; every other group or class was just a special interest.

Given that the poor at the turn of the century could not even represent themselves as an interest, middle class liberals became their paladins and later reluctant allies of organized labor representing sizeable working-class unrest. Never secure in its mandate and always fearful of its plutocratic cousins, middle class liberalism via the Democratic Party became a rather inconstant tribune of the people. When the poor wanted power and money, as in the fractious years of the war on poverty, liberals disabled them politically. When labor sought not simply a welfare state and the right to organize but the political muscle to take over basic industries, liberals cooperated in anti-communist crusades during the forties and fifties to root out the radicals in labor’s midst, and never made turning back punitive anti-labor laws a congressional must. Liberals, self-presenting missionaries of the middle class, believed as so many liberal parties before them that their class was finally the best and the brightest, and the most fit to rule in a democracy composed of the more fractious and self-interested.

And so, over the past thirty-some years, the poor and then the working class, the latter initially as organized labor and then as “working families,” have been thrown over by liberals, and a new fascination with the middle class since the Clinton era has taken their place. Perhaps fascination is too genteel a term; it’s more of an obsession. American liberalism is waging its latest (or last?) campaign to save the middle class, and in so doing, save its waning power base in a country where wages are being brutally beaten down by a perfect storm of economic disaster and political malice, and the few badges of middle class aspirations such as home ownership, a financed oversize car running on cheap gas, a kid or two at good colleges, and winter vacations to Florida and the Islands are seeming like high cost items on an over-used charge card. (See the March 2011 issue of American Prospect for the left liberal version of “save the middle class” politics.).

Long-term job loss, foreclosures, personal bankruptcies –these are our rising numbers – not the rate of GDP increase. American capitalism having savaged the poor and working class is coming for the middle class, both aspirational and real. The Darwinian selection now at hand is rending the middle class into fearful, seething, and resentful fractions divided less by profession, position, or degree, than within professions, positions, and the degreed. Though renewed economic growth is envisioned as saving the day again (the hope of the entire political class, not just of the liberals, as growth makes successful liars of them all), one senses increased skepticism out and about that growth can stop the nation’s long downward slide.

Rather, the metaphor in the back of people’s minds, if not yet on their lips, is the lifeboat. As there are fewer posts in the American lifeboat than people, who shall be left to drown or swim on their own? The poor and working class having already been tossed over the side, the game for political dominance and thus the target of political pandering comes down to capturing a middle class majority by promising supporters guaranteed seats.

Yet, liberalism’s dilemma is that it seldom if ever achieves a majority among its own kind in the middle class. The blandishments of riches bribe some, and lead others to aspire to the plutocracy. The resentments of losing middle class position and status quickly create reactionaries. As political scientist Larry Bartels (Unequal Democracy. 2008) has shown, it’s the middle class that has run off as the going has gotten rough electorally. The poor and working class since the seventies, if anything, have been too loyal to liberals and the Democratic Party for what modest gains they have received in return.

Given that the majority of Americans are so much worse off than the vouchsafed middle class, why save them first, or at all? And why embrace, suffer, or save such liberalism?