This spring, a prominent Democratic pollster sent a memo to party leaders and Democratic elected officials advising them to speak and think differently. The nation’s economy had deteriorated so drastically, he cautioned, that they needed to abandon their references to the “middle class,” substituting for those hallowed words the phrase “working people.” “In today’s harsh economic reality,” he wrote, “many voters no longer identify as middle class.”
How many voters? In 2008, a Pew poll asked Americans to identify themselves by class. Fifty-three percent said they were middle-class; 25 percent said lower-class. When Pew asked the same question this January, it found that the number who’d called themselves middle-class had shrunk to 44 percent, while those who said they were of the lower class had grown from 25 percent to 40 percent.
Americans’ assessment of their place in the nation’s new economic order is depressingly accurate. Though most of the jobs lost in the 2007–2009 recession were in middle-income industries, the lion’s share of the jobs created in the half-decade since have been in such low-paying sectors as retail and restaurants. Median household income has declined in every year of the recovery. The share of the nation’s income going to wages and salaries, which for decades held steady at two-thirds, has in recent years descended to 58 percent — the lowest level since the government began its measurements.
The waning of America’s middle class presents a huge challenge to the nation’s oldest political party. The Democrats’ ability to improve the economic lives of most Americans has been their primary calling card to the nation’s voters ever since Franklin Roosevelt became president. Since the 1940s, however, the Democrats’ preferred method of helping working- and middle-class Americans has tilted more toward spurring economic growth than aggressive redistribution. So long as the growth in the nation’s economy registered in the pocketbooks of most Americans, there was little need to adopt policies that put a high priority on, say, redirecting profits into wages.
Like the other Democratic elected officials of her generation, Hillary Clinton came of age and (more than the others) thrived in an economic and political system in which Kennedy’s rising tide did lift all boats, cohabiting with both Wall Street and working people’s organizations was routine, and the pressure to take a side in a slowly emerging class war could barely be felt. Today, however, that pressure is palpable — and increasingly uncomfortable to a host of Democratic pols, Clinton most especially.
How this conflict affects the 2016 presidential race, the more-likely-than-not Hillary Clinton presidency and the larger future of the Democratic Party remains to be seen. Despite its demographic advantages, the party cannot indefinitely retain its electoral edge if it fails to address the falling power and income of ordinary Americans — even if such policies cost the party the backing of financial elites at a time when elections are more driven by money than ever before. It’s time for Democrats to disenthrall themselves from their routine conciliation of interests that have become profoundly opposed. It’s time for them to welcome more hatred from the successors to Roosevelt’s forces of selfishness. Harder choices than those Clinton chronicles in her new book await them.
— By Harold Meyerson
To read Harold Meyerson’s complete article in American Prospect, click here.