What's the Matter With Class?

On June 6, California voters decisively rejected a ballot initiative to provide tax-supported public pre-kindergarten. A special surtax would have touched only residents making at least $400,000 or $800,000 for a couple. It's hard to think of a better use of social outlay for the middle class and the poor, or a better-targeted tax. Yet the measure lost, 61 to 39 percent. Yes, there were extenuating circumstances -- low turnout, ambivalence of the state's political elite, and damaging fallout over the dual role of prime sponsor Rob Reiner, who also chaired a state-funded commission on early education.

But the defeat was no fluke. Two years ago, writing in the Prospect, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels reported that voters of all classes supported repeal of the estate tax, which affected only the richest 2 percent. Even moderate-income voters who deplored rising inequality and supported activist government favored repeal by 2-to-1.

Last year, Bartels went on to challenge Tom Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank says social issues have filled a vacuum left by the failure of mainstream politics to address the crisis of the pocketbook, leaving working-class voters to vote against their own economic interests. Bartels faults Frank for overemphasizing class, though after criticizing Frank for multiple sins of methodology, Bartels concedes that “bread-and-butter economic issues are likely to be more potent than social issues” if Democrats are to reach downscale white voters.

The Democratic Leadership Council echoes Bartels' criticism. In a paper on the DLC Web site, economist Stephen Rose says only about one-fourth of working-age Americans have a “class-based” interest in the pocketbook programs associated with traditional Democrats. He faults populists like Frank for “cling[ing] to an outdated concept of workers' interests, a holdover from the New Deal to Great Society era when a large blue-collar class was fighting for a fair share of the industrial economy's rewards.”

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The contention that Democratic populists are mistakenly obsessed with the “working class” is a straw man. At least two-thirds of Americans today are economically stressed. American families are working longer hours to stay barely even. Productivity almost doubled during the past three decades, and all the gains went to the top 10 percent (most to the top 1 percent), because the right has so relentlessly undermined institutions of opportunity and security long championed by Democrats. The most successful of these, like Social Security and Medicare, are directed to everyone, not just the working class. As Stan Greenberg has long argued, it's possible -- and necessary -- to articulate a populism that speaks to everyone but the independently wealthy.

The tale of the service economy mooting class politics is also a straw man. Regardless of the color of their collars, ordinary earners of the postwar era enjoyed a larger and more secure share of the total pie than they do today, precisely because Democrats fought for their pocketbook interests. And voters reciprocated. This is the economic dimension of our colleague Michael Tomasky's widely quoted brief for the common good in our May issue.

The issue isn't just incomes. The right has moved working-class vulnerabilities upward, to the broad middle class. As Jacob Hacker demonstrates in an important forthcoming book, The Great Risk Shift, corporations as well as government once protected ordinary Americans from such risks as poverty in old age, and inability to pay medical bills. Corporations today are dismantling employer-guaranteed health and pension plans, shifting these risks back to working people -- not just working-class people, but to everyone not independently wealthy.

So there is pay dirt in an economic populism that speaks to everyone who isn't rich. Of course, government bashing, often by Democrats as well as Republicans, has undermined the premise that tax-and-spend can help deliver opportunity and security. In a time of stagnant living standards and feeble government help, voting yourself a modest tax cut (even if richer people get a much bigger one) is often the easiest political recourse.

Some remedies, like a living wage, the right to unionize, secure pensions, and paid family leave don't require revenues. But it's hard to devise a serious opportunity program without public dollars.

Broad support for progressive taxation can be reclaimed only with political leadership. We need to restore faith that government can help both a middle class and a working class harmed by the elite takeover of politics. The bogeyman of class should not dissuade progressives from addressing the current class war by the top against the rest.

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