Opinion Columns & Blogs

Rise up, middle class

The 2012 election campaign is upon us, and from what we’ve seen so far, the tenor of the “messaging” is not what anybody would term enlightening.

What the American public needs right now is context. Deeper interpretation of the data that get thrown at us by the news media. Analysis that steps back from conventional wisdom and soberly considers the origin and nature of the stress and fear so many of us feel about where our nation and our society are going.

The text we should all be reading is “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” by the reporting team of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele. Published this month, the book is a nuanced and well-researched report on the crisis of the American middle class.

That is the crisis of our time, and if we’re lucky, it is issue on which this year’s elections will turn.

Middle-class Americans know they are hurting, or are at least vulnerable to the misfortunes they see happening to others. The seriousness of the crisis is easy enough to outline: 22 million people out of work, staggering levels of household debt, a devastated manufacturing base and a wealth gap that has expanded to proportions last seen in the era of the Robber Barons.

Problem is, without context, voters are apt to buy into consensus thinking that rings “true” but is not. Or to submit to the rhetoric of outrage that is carefully retailed by cable TV and AM radio specifically to stir their tribal passions. This, in turn, can have people inadvertently voting against their own interests.

That is not to say Barlett and Steele are disintersted or dispassionate. They summarize the object of their book in the prologue: “The forces that are dismantling the American middle class are relentless. America must stop sacrificing its greatest asset. Because, without a middle class, there isn’t really an America.”

No one goes unscathed. Congress, they write, has taken a “30-year holiday from economic reality – at least as far as the middle class is concerned.” Presidents from both parties from the mid-1970s to today have all too willingly sacrificed the fortunes of working people on the altar of international free trade. In 1979, the authors point out, there were 19.5 million manufacturing jobs in the United States. In 2011, there were 11.6 million.

A particularly useful aspect of the book is its historical scope and the way the authors document important turning points for the middle class. Consider 1985. From 1950 until that year, they write, the number of American workers with defined-benefit pensions had steadily grown. Since 1985, corporations have killed 84,350 pension plans.

Pummeled by stagnating wages and lost jobs, many American workers have unfortunately bought into the idea that their shrinking fortunes and opportunities are of their own making. A bit of this may be the sense of individualism and work ethic that have long been the strength of America.

But it’s self-defeating. Average Americans need to understand the root causes of the displacement they see around them – and the further consequences they should expect if nothing is done.

That’s what the book is about.

The media love to cover politics as a horserace, and part of that is slicing and dicing the electorate into constituencies it can name and analyze. Lost in this blather is the fact that the middle class is America’s largest voting bloc.

It can assert its will in this election. But first it needs to get wise.