From Aristotle to Obama, Romney and Trudeau, valorizing the middle class is a well-worn political game.
It’s election season, and U.S. politicians are wooing the middle class. No surprise there. But as their ardour intensifies, the love object is becoming strangely formless and expandable – something from the realm of myth and legend rather than a definable reality.
When pressed, Mitt Romney puts the ceiling of middle-class income at between $200,000 and $250,000 a year. Publicly, he’s vague about the floor, but one suspects it’s defined by the 47 per cent who he says (privately) are living off the public purse.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, contributes to the boundary confusion with his rhetorical dissolution of a prosperous working class. The well-paying blue-collar jobs he claims to have rescued at General Motors and Chrysler are, he says, “middle-class” jobs.
One might think that such a definition would raise some eyebrows among traditional, blue-collar Democrats. But I can find no evidence that it has. It does, however, comport with the optimistic illusion (given credence as early as the 1830s by Alexis de Tocqueville) that the United States is essentially a middle-class democracy, mercifully free from the dangers of a feckless aristocracy and a permanent (and permanently aggrieved) proletariat.
Some recent changes have enhanced the allure of middle-class identity in Western economies – namely, their general shift from manufacturing to service industries. Employees in the latter typically identify themselves as middle class and disavow many features of traditional working-class affiliation, including trade union membership. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan recognized the trend and exploited it for electoral success.
The notion of a middle class has always been more meaningful as a creation of personal aspiration and political rhetoric than as an objective socioeconomic category with definable content and borders. Aristotle was one of the first to imagine a middle class, invested with political virtue, its members free from the vices of both rich and poor. Those in the middle neither coveted the possessions of others nor were themselves the targets of covetousness.
Aristotle’s prescriptions have echoed through the centuries. A pithy corollary comes from an 18th-century mayor of London, William Beckford, who made his fortune from sugar plantations in the West Indies. “The scum is as mean as the dregs,” he said, his metaphor inspired by his intimate knowledge of rum production.
According to historian Dror Wahrman, the modern language of the middle class originated in the political and economic crisis in Britain as that country engaged in its epic conflict with revolutionary France. The struggle inspired a “middle-class idiom” that preached the virtues of moderation against brutal repression on the one hand and wild-eyed radicalism on the other.
Many of the middle-class anxieties of the 1790s seem eerily familiar today. There was mounting alarm about the ballooning national debt, coupled with anger that the most productive class (at least in its own estimation) should have to bear the fiscal burden. Joe Biden would not have seemed out of place had he popped up in London in 1797 complaining that the middle class was being “buried.”
In valorizing a middle class and speaking to its concerns, Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney and Mr. Biden are operating in a political tradition with a long vintage and its own compelling language. Which brings us finally to Justin Trudeau, who in announcing his candidacy for the leadership of the federal Liberals declared his allegiance to Canada’s middle class.
I hazard a guess that the majority of Canadians know just three things about the man who aspires to lead the country’s third party: that he is the son of Pierre Trudeau; that he once cursed an opponent in the House of Commons; and that he won a boxing match against a Conservative senator. The image of a privileged, foul-mouthed brawler hardly seems like a recipe for electoral success.
Will allegiance to the middle class help refurbish that image? Perhaps. But if Mr. Trudeau wins the Liberal leadership, he will be pitted against Stephen Harper, a practised master of the middle-class idiom.
John Sainsbury teaches history at Brock University.