Monday, November 14, 2011

Democrats Better Pay Attention To The Needs of The Middle Class

Why are Tea Party people so angry and fearful? Yes, right-wing demagogues aided by right-wing funders like the Koch brothers have stoked their fears and anger to a fever pitch, but why were they angry to begin with?  Why are they and many in the broader population so receptive to the lies and fear-mongering?

President Jimmy Carter posited that their fear is of a changed social order evidenced by the election of a black president. While I’m sure that is part of the answer, is it really so simple as the color of Obama’s skin and his progressive policies? No, the answer lies elsewhere.

Feeding this fear of a changed social order, racism, and the Tea Party’s resonance has been a sea change in the wellbeing of America’s middle class. The middle class is made up mostly of nonprofessionals … people with only a high school degree. As manufacturing and other middle class jobs have disappeared over the past 30 years, their standard of living and the quality of their lives has been drifting downward.

The recent recession only exacerbated the trend. In March 2011, 12 percent of those with only a high-school diploma were unemployed compared to 4.5 percept of those with college degrees and 2 percent for those with professional degrees. The greatest impact has been on men … in 1967, 97 percent of men 30-50 years old in this cohort were employed; in 2010, just 76 percent were.

Not only has this resulted in economic problems for these men and their families, these pressures have brought about greater interpersonal stress, with a resulting increase in divorce rates and other examples of social dysfunction. The greater income inequality that developed during this period has also resulted in heightened actual and felt lifestyle differences between the middle class and those with more income and education.  (All data from, Don Peck, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved,” The Atlantic, September 2011)

The world as the middle class knew it since WWII has been turned upside down.  Small wonder they are scared, angry, and alienated. Yet this important shift in the American social fabric is never discussed. Politicians talk vaguely about the need to protect the middle class, but the evisceration that has already occurred is not mentioned.

If the Democratic Party wants to win in 2012, it must clearly let the middle class know that it is aware of their pain, that it feels their pain, and that it proposes a series of interrelated policies to restore the lot of the middle class. It's a complex economic and social engineering question that will require the attention of our best and brightest. Obama and the other candidates must share their vision for where they want the country to go and how they propose getting there.