A wide array of issues and controversies populate the political terrain, but none are as important as the health and future of the middle class. A strong middle class has historically stood as a pillar of American society and constitutional democracy. It gave America its unique democratic identity in the eighteenth century; it shaped the outlook of the constitutional framers; it sustained an economic growth that has been unmatched in human history; and it provided the basis for a social and political system that not only inspired centuries of freedom and innovation, but centuries of order and stability as well.
If there is one single factor that has energized and guided America, it is the middle class. But for the past decade, the vitality of the middle class has appeared threatened. And this threat has stirred great public anxiety, fueling an increasingly partisan debate about income inequality. The partisanship has stemmed from the liberal charge that conservatives care only for the rich, regardless of how the incomes and mobility of the middle class may have stagnated.
This liberal attack cuts to the heart of an American conservatism grounded on middle class values and vitality. And because this attack questions their historic identity and purpose, conservatives must not only answer it, but must reaffirm their middle class commitment – a commitment that seemed to weaken during the Bush presidency, where a focus on foreign policy and income tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthy often conveyed the impression that conservatism had lost sight of the middle class.
The Struggles of the Middle Class
The middle class is suffering an economic erosion. As discussed in the previous article on income inequality, middle class incomes and opportunities for mobility have declined, despite a robust stock market that has greatly enriched the wealthy. Not only has the middle class experienced wage stagnation, but the supply of mid-wage jobs has shrunk proportionally more than jobs at the top or bottom. The wealthy and highly educated are doing well, and the number of low-wage, unskilled jobs are increasing, as are government benefits to low-income individuals. But the middle class is struggling against the trend of decline.
The middle class cannot rely for help on the elite, who increasingly occupy an almost completely different economy than that in which the middle class is struggling. And because the Democratic Party is dominated by these elites, who are largely isolated from the ebbs and flows of the private economy, it is less attuned to the middle class, which is dependent on private-sector economic growth. Although Democrats claim that they are the party of the average person, but the evidence clearly rebuts this claim. In 2012, seven of the ten richest counties in America voted for President Obama, and seven of the ten richest congressional districts are represented by Democrats.
Cultural Liberalism and the Attack on the Middle Class
Through the influence of the cultural elite, the Democratic Party has become the political agent for undercutting many of the centuries-old middle class values of which the elite wish to be free. It has also become the advocate of more centralized government, which, under the control of the political elite, becomes a tool for wresting power from a middle class that for so long has resisted control by the elite.
Cultural liberalism has been the elite’s means of seceding from middle class America. In the way it has promoted full abortion rights, for instance, liberalism has eroded such historic social institutions as religion, which has always been under the province and direction of the middle class. And the weakening of religion is essential to the rich, who often chafe against any outside constraints on their lifestyles. Indeed, wealthy liberals have promoted a rights agenda which undermines the social authority of cultural institutions whose authority traditionally extended even to the wealthy. But this rights agenda, which incidentally costs the wealthy nothing in terms of taxes, does not help the poor or the working classes; it is primarily a tool of the wealthy to break free of middle class constraints.
The cultural rebellion waged by the Left has had a devastating impact on the social order. The breakdown of the rule of law has been prevalent, leading to such increases in crime that we no longer even try to prosecute many of them. But this breakdown does not hurt the rich, who live in well-protected cocoons of safety. It hurts the working and middle classes, who now must pay for the elite’s refusal to be subject to what are seen as middle class rules.
The Political Role of the Middle Class
The Left talks idealistically about the democratic role of the common person — about how, in a democracy, there is no greater authority than the common person. But this is not how the Left really acts.
Ever since the Progressive and New Deal eras, the Left has advocated a government-by-experts. The huge labyrinth of the administrative state is built upon the belief that only experts can adequately govern this country – a belief that makes liberals resist giving choices to the average person through school choice programs or health savings accounts. In the liberal mindset, the average person serves not as a sovereign voice within American democracy but as a dependent client of government – something to justify the growing power of government agencies. The individual is not to act, but to be acted upon.
Liberals claim that big government programs help the middle class, but cronyism and clientelism often corrupt those programs, channeling benefits to the well-connected and away from the middle class. Take, for instance, the farm bill. Most family farmers don’t want it, and there was a populist revolt against it in Kansas, but wealthy farmers and large agribusinesses used their lobbyists to push for it. Then there is the Export-Import Bank, which has funneled billions of taxpayer dollars to big corporations with strong lobbying operations. This is why conservatives need to limit the reach of government in ways that protect and advance the middle class.
Policies of Dependence
Work is the pathway to the middle class, and independence is the hallmark of the middle class. But liberal policies often enhance dependency. Liberals resist giving the middle class control over their Social Security accounts, despite the fact that the Social Security system run by the government is going broke. They resist giving individuals control over the structure of their health care, even though nearly every assurance made by the government concerning Obamacare has proved false. They resist giving families their choice of schools, even though the public schools assigned to their children are themselves failing. Liberals even resist the work requirement in welfare, even though work leads to independence. Conversely, eliminating the work requirement only expands dependency.
The Left does not seem to value the independence of the middle class, perhaps because the middle class has never bought into the utopian radicalism of the Left. Consequently, liberal policies often exert a depressing effect on work. Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office announced that Obamacare’s disincentives on work will wipe out more than 2 million full-time jobs. Moreover, these disincentives are not geared toward the sick, the elderly or the disabled, but toward working-age able-bodied adults, who will be motivated to choose government dependence over self-reliance. This is another example of how an ever-expanding government seeks to turn people from independent workers into dependent clients. But this is hardly compatible with the kind of authentic citizenship envisioned by the framers, since dependency degrades the capacity of the citizenry to operate as a check on government.
Current immigration policies have been particularly skewed against work and the middle class. The Obama administration has been reluctant to grant immigrant visas to people with job skills in high demand. Instead, the focus is on the unskilled, illegal immigrants who are much more likely to become clients of the government social welfare system. The Obama immigration policy, by focusing on the unskilled, has greatly expanded the ranks of the poor; whereas, for instance, Australia’s more selective immigration policy has tended to reduce them.
The goal of immigration policy should be to increase the ranks of middle class economic producers, not to expand the ranks of government consumers. But eligibility requirements for a range of social welfare programs – cash welfare, food stamps, disability, Medicaid, etc. – discourage work. (Most means-tested welfare programs do not even require the recipient to be a citizen.) When people voluntarily come to the U.S., it is not unreasonable to expect them to survive without public assistance or return to their native countries. But surprisingly, the poverty rates for immigrants are higher than for natives. In 2011, 20 percent of U.S. immigrants lived in poverty, compared with 13.5 percent of natives. This contradicts the 1996 welfare reform goal of encouraging immigrants to be self-sustaining and deterring immigrants who were not likely to survive without public assistance.
A better policy approach for the middle class would not be to just add them as another dependent client of another federally-designed program that primarily benefits the bureaucrats administering the program, but to give them more power to direct their own lives. This could be done through a bigger child tax credit for struggling families, a payroll tax cut to boost employment and employee income, an expanded earned-income tax credit to raise wages at the bottom, and health savings accounts that roll over unspent money. Conservatives want to help the unemployed rise up to the middle class in a way that lets them become independent, rather than in a way that permanently expands government.
Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research.