What’s the matter with saying ‘middle class?’


Marjorie E. Wood

The term now conjures up anxiety about the future, so candidates avoid it.

Presidential candidates are getting creative when it comes to describing the middle class, The New York Times reports.

Why? Because the middle class in America is shrinking. As a result, the term no longer connotes aspirational, feel-good emotions.

Long associated with the American dream, the phrase now conjures up anxiety about the future and a lifestyle that’s become unattainable for millions of Americans. Pollsters concluded that using the term on the 2016 campaign trail would hurt more than help.

This isn’t as surprising as you’d think. Some 95 percent of income and wealth gains have gone to the top 1 percent over the past few years. And during the same period, average income for everyone else — including the middle class — actually dropped.

Meanwhile, tax cuts for the wealthy have reduced the quality of education, infrastructure and other public goods and services.

Tickets into the middle class like public schools and higher education are waning. College education in particular is becoming unaffordable for ordinary people, who are forced to take on massive debt for a shot at a degree.

Job growth since 2008 has been concentrated in low-wage jobs like retail and restaurant work, not in higher paying middle-class jobs. For many in the 99 percent, that means choosing between a low-wage job and no job at all. It also means unpredictable schedules, temp work, and insufficient benefits — or often no benefits at all.

People like economist Guy Standing call this growing class of temporary and contract workers the “precariat,” underscoring the common feeling that at any given time they could fall out of the middle class. All it would take is for a temp job not to be renewed, hours to be reduced, or an unexpected expense or life event.

Political scientist Sarah Elwood observes that we have “no collective language” for talking about this condition. Our increasingly precarious economy has made the term “middle class” lose its resonance among voters.

So how are candidates responding?

By introducing new language that doesn’t evoke the same anxiety.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign references “everyday Americans.” Scott Walker’s team prefers “hard-working taxpayers,” while Rand Paul reaches out to “people who work for the people who own businesses.”

Marco Rubio calls them “the millions and millions of people who aren’t rich.”

It does give the growing cluster of presidential hopefuls a chance to show off their linguistic talents. And it shows they’re attuned to emotions and how certain word choices might help their campaigns.

But using other terms won’t fix what’s broken in the economy.

Instead of wasting time and energy on poll-testing their buzzwords, candidates should focus on creating new policies to save the middle class.

Instead of grasping for new language, they should come up with new solutions. And they should tell the truth about what’s really happened to the middle class.

Ironically, they just might find that telling the truth is how you win the support of everyday Americans, hard-working taxpayers, and the millions and millions of Americans who aren’t rich — whatever you call them.

comments powered by Disqus