Magazine article The American Prospect

The First Post-Middle-Class Election: The Politics of Downward Mobility and Racial Diversity Have Eroded the Center, Pushing Democrats to the Left and Republicans toward an Authoritarian Right

Magazine article The American Prospect

The First Post-Middle-Class Election: The Politics of Downward Mobility and Racial Diversity Have Eroded the Center, Pushing Democrats to the Left and Republicans toward an Authoritarian Right

Article excerpt

Two years ago, a pollster for Democratic candidates told me he'd begun advising his clients to cease emphasizing "the middle class" when speaking of those Americans whose interests they were defending. Many Americans who once thought of themselves as middle-class, he argued, no longer did.

Last year, a Pew Research Center survey confirmed those Americans' assessment. The share of income going to middle-class Americans declined from 62 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2014, while the share going to upper-income households rose from 29 percent to 49 percent.

The erosion of middle-class America has been afoot for 40 years, but it was the financial crisis of 2008 and the tepid recovery that followed it that have shaken American politics to its foundations. Post-collapse, the debt that millions of families amassed to maintain their living standards was called in. Working Americans over 50 who lost their jobs found few comparable opportunities available, while younger Americans found that making a living--one that enabled them to move out of mom and pop's place--was no easy task.

Economic upheavals shake up nations' politics. So does demographic change--racial, religious, cultural. While the crash came in 2008, it's only in the years since that we've grasped just how profound are its ensuing economic dislocations. Our understanding of its political implications has lagged even further behind. Virtually no one foresaw that Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination for president, or that Bernie Sanders, the one and only democratic socialist even visible in contemporary politics, would win more than 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

What explains this collective failure to understand that the 2008 crash and its aftermath might have an effect similar to that of the 1929 crash and its aftermath, both in the United States and Europe? To be sure, neither the economics nor politics of the 1930s have re-emerged full-blown today: In 2009, unlike 1929, governments did just enough to keep the world economy from toppling into the abyss. But the disruptions and dashed expectations that followed the collapse were deep enough to push both the Democratic and Republican Parties into uncharted waters. As in the 1930s, a new generation of Democrats moved their party leftward, challenging many of the practices and some of the tenets of capitalism. For their part, Republicans who had faithfully served the interests of big business while stoking the ire of their white working-class constituents against minorities and immigrants discovered that those downwardly mobile working-class whites had had it with the catering to big business. Instead, they harkened to the one candidate who voiced their rage at the multiracial nation they saw supplanting white America.

With their conventions approaching, both parties now confront definitional--perhaps even existential--challenges. Will the Democrats, as they did between 1928 and 1936, and again in 1964 and 1965, redefine their fundamental mission? Will the Republicans become, overtly and primarily, a white nationalist party? It will take years for the parties to answer these questions fully, but how they respond during the upcoming weeks and months should tell us a lot.

THE DEMOCRATS

One way to gauge the future of a political party is to watch the ways in which its leading political figures change their positions in the course of an intra-party campaign. This year, Hillary Clinton clearly

moved left on a range of economic issues: Reversing her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and her earlier positive stance toward the Keystone XL Pipeline; moving from a position of limiting the increase of Social Security benefits to supporting their expansion (an evolution she shares with President Obama); and backing a higher standard for the federal minimum wage (also in tandem with Obama). She also put forth a range of financial regulations that go beyond those in Dodd-Frank, although--as with all these moves leftward--they don't go as far as those proposed by Sanders. …

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