Liberals accuse Republicans of engaging in class warfare. Conservatives accuse Republicans of engaging in class warfare. Cynics accuse both parties of existing “solely to hurl rhetoric at each other and pander to the the most ignorant of their base constituencies.”
While the Antiplanner is sympathetic to the cynical view, I also think the idea of class deserves more attention than most Americans give it. Too many people use the term “middle class” when they mean “middle income,” which is something quite different. Classes have distinct cultural values, which may be quite independent of income. Classes also tend to be rigid, with various barriers prevent people from moving from one class to another, whereas income levels like “1 percent-99 percent” are quite porous.
The Antiplanner sees four main classes in America today. The upper class includes people who are so wealthy that work is merely an option. Perhaps only 1 or 2 percent are in this group (which is not the same as the “1 percent” which includes people who do work but earn large amounts). The middle class includes people (and their families) whose work involves thinking more than labor. For the most part, they are college educated, which allows us to estimate their numbers: just under 30 percent of working-age Americans have bachelor’s degrees. The underclass includes people who are permanently poor, not just people who are between jobs or recent college graduates who do not yet have jobs (who are included in Census Bureau poverty numbers). Around 10 percent of Americans fall in this category.
Finally, the remaining roughly 60 percent consists of working class people (and their families), whose work is physical or repetitive rather than knowledge-based.
In his book, The Working Class Majority, economist Michael Zweig agrees with the Antiplanner that the working class makes up about 60 percent of the labor force. However, his definitions are a little different, “based on the power and authority people have at work”: people who give orders are middle class; people who take orders are working class. By those definitions, for example, doctors are middle class while nurses are working class.
An economist named Richard Wolff shows why class has become an issue. He claims that, from 1820 to 1970 “workers’ real wages rose every decade.” Since 1970, however, working-class wages have stagnated while corporate profits have grown. I don’t think Wolff adequately explains how corporations have gotten away with fattening their profits while denying wage increases, but the stagnation of working-class income is a big issue that no doubt plays an important role in the hostility to recent immigrants and other domestic political issues. (If you like watching video lectures, which the Antiplanner doesn’t, here is Wolff explaining his reasoning.)
What is clear is that the United States has become less egalitarian than it was in 1970. In 1970, people with college degrees earned about 50 percent more than people with no college education; today the former earn about twice as much as the latter. The barriers between working class and middle class have gotten stronger: although we like to believe that anyone born in America can grow up to become president, by my reckoning we haven’t had a working-class president since James Garfield. For what it’s worth, a recent Pew study has shown that residential areas have also become increasingly segregated by income.
My liberal father, who broke through the working-class barrier and entered the middle class, always said that the only reason to vote Republican is if you were rich. Yet when I speak to Republican groups, I find an awful lot of people who are working class.
The Democrats claim to be the party of the working class, but as faithful Antiplanner ally Joel Kotkin points out, most union workers today are public employees and include teachers, bureaucrats, and other middle-class occupations.
“Obamaâ€™s core middle-class support, and that of his party, comes from . . . an ever-expanding class of minders–lawyers, teachers, university professors, the media and, most particularly, the relatively well paid legions of public sector workers–who inhabit Washington, academia, large non-profits and government centers across the country,” says Kotkin. While the Democrats may also enjoy the support of working-class unions, only about 7 percent of private-sector workers are union members.
The real problem is that what Kotkin calls the clerisy are the ones who have the real political power to set policy. I view the tea party movement as a reaction against that (as well as a reaction against the neoconservatives who make up the Republican version of the clerisy). As the race currently stands, it appears that the tea parties will continue to influence local and state elections, but haven’t been able to toss the neocons from the Republican Party and are unlikely to toss Obama from the White House.
Beyond this election, though, the real questions are: Why did wages stagnate after 1970? Did barriers between the working and middle classes really increase and if so why? How can those barriers be reduced? I’ll be focusing some of my efforts on these questions over the next year.