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Dreams Deferred for the Middle Class


It’s a good bet that no authors dedicated a book “To Earl Long and Robert F. Kennedy” before James Carville and Stan Greenberg penned It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! It’s an odd book, but definitely worth putting on your preconvention reading list. Indeed, for many Democrats, it will become the playbook on how to talk to voters about economic issues.

Carville and Greenberg, two of the smartest guys in the Democratic Party, have looked at where their party has fallen short over the past three decades, particularly how Democrats have failed to grasp working- and middle-class voters’ attitudes toward government spending and public debt. The book is careful not to criticize President Obama, but one can certainly infer differences between how Carville and Greenberg would have approached economic policy compared with Obama.

They take a sobering look at not just how the working and middle classes have lost ground over much of the past 30 years, but also the extent to which the American Dream has been downsized. For many people, it’s no longer about Horatio Alger rags-to-riches aspirations so much as the determination to simply provide for their families. Success is no longer measured in terms of moving ahead and giving your children better opportunities than you had, but about just keeping your head above water, holding on to your house, and not falling behind. Many Americans are working harder and longer, scrimping, and going into debt to send kids to college only to find that the newly minted graduates can’t find a job, or at least not one that makes use of their education.

The pair challenged economist Larry Mishel, who heads the liberal Economic Policy Institute, to come up with 15 charts that “tell the story” of what has happened to the middle class. What Mishel produced is deeply disturbing and is alone worth the price of the book—a picture of what many of us sensed had happened, but that is much more dramatic when graphically displayed.

The authors augment Mishel’s charts with polling from Greenberg’s survey-research firm and quotes from one-on-one interviews and focus groups of working- and middle-class voters talking about their lives and the downsizing of the American Dream. Mishel’s graphs clearly display that for many of these Americans, the tune “Moving on Up” has been replaced by “Let’s Hang on to What We’ve Got.” It’s remarkable that even with the struggles that so many of these people face, they haven’t given up on their dreams; they’ve just scaled them back. One noncollege-educated Latino woman from Anaheim, Calif., put it best: “If we didn’t have an American Dream, I think we would be just like every other country.”

This book isn’t a rallying cry for class warfare. Much of the data point to the exploding gap between the very successful—the “1 percent,” if you will—and everyone else. But the numbers also show why the inequality argument doesn’t work well with many working- and middle-class voters; they are less interested in taking the upper class down than in moving themselves up (although surveys show that raising taxes on those with incomes over $250,000 polls off the charts, no doubt one reason that President Obama is emphasizing it so much these days). “There was a real reluctance to take away the lifetime earnings of somebody who played by the established rules, even if they view the game as rigged,” Greenberg writes, speaking for himself and Carville. “While the two of us are focused on inequality, fairness, and the growing gap between the middle class and the wealthy, the voter is focused first on the middle class and what has happened to them. Everything else pales in comparison.”

One particularly interesting thesis is that economic security is no longer racially charged. A generation or two ago, working-class whites would often express resentment toward affirmative action, racial preferences, and welfare; now, they focus on “declining wages, reduced benefits, and crushing costs for the essentials of life”—nothing related to race. As Carville puts it, “There are plenty of qualified men, slightly older men, who have applied for many, many jobs. Try telling them that a black man got the job every time! What happens is that companies are going with younger, less-qualified workers because they’re cheaper. The costs, especially the health care costs, are much less. Every second in corporate America, some 50-year-old loses his or her job and the company hires two young people at half the cost or less. The new race is health care costs.”

The data show quite clearly how this struggle long preceded the current downturn. Starting around 1980, upward mobility began to diminish. While the 1990s saw gains (when the authors’ former boss, Bill Clinton, was president), the economy slumped again starting in 2001. “When the financial crisis struck in 2008,” the authors write, “it had the effect of hitting somebody suffering from pneumonia with a pickup truck.”

Greenberg had written seven books before this one; Carville had written or cowritten eight. It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! alternates between their voices, with data and analysis usually presented by Greenberg in a serious-as-a-heart-attack but highly readable form, accompanied by his usual trenchant analysis. Carville has a less reserved approach—sometimes with a scalpel, other times with a meat cleaver—but always cutting through the clutter and making the point with great clarity. They also present a host of policy recommendations on many subjects based on what they’ve learned. Although both Greenberg and Carville are highly partisan and strongly ideological, Democrats and Republicans alike in the elite and political class should pay heed: These pages contain more than a little truth.

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