Why Does Everyone in America Think They’re Middle Class?
David R. Roediger on the Myth of American Exceptionalism
There are understandable tendencies to regard today’s political chatter about the middle class as mere boilerplate, or as describing a vessel into which liberal and even socialist ideas may be poured as easily as reactionary ones. Instead, such rhetoric, now more firmly tied than ever to the “American Exceptionalist” view of the United States as a blessed and exemplary place, stunts political imagination and possibility. To lots of us both American exceptionalism and the idea of a middle-class nation ring hollow. But they remain the twin pillars of political commonsense for those thinking electorally or at least tuning into Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN. The history of how slowly the middle-class nation and the idea of American exceptionalism came to be joined in politics, social thought, and media, and then how fully they became merged, therefore deserves attention. Since the terms of that merger so privilege one tiny sliver of the middle classes—the entrepreneur—to stand in for the whole, the process carries even more importance.
If the Cold War nationalist efforts hailing almost everybody as middle class remained incomplete, they were nevertheless impressive and destructive. Joined, as we will see in the following chapter, by miseries even during good times that made for a sad but unifying middle-class experience, such hailing frequently found response. This was especially the case when the middle class being courted was placed by politicians and pundits within the context of a never-equaled nation, an “American exceptionalist” one. It seemed not so much capitalism, but the specific adoption of a US model of supposed free enterprise, capable of generating a giant middle class, that would best Communism.
The middle class, nationalism, and the notion of a transcendent US model harmonized to identify the US middle class as the key to everything. For example, in the face of challenges from the New Left, Black Power, and above all the Vietnamese in 1968, the Bay Area philosopher and waterfront worker Eric Hoffer found fame as the voice of reason and order. For Hoffer, as for Ayn Rand, the middle class gave us Western Civilization, and the US example showed that such a class could become “real” Internationale, rendering hopes of socialist solidarity hollow and ridiculous. Politicians, as we have seen, have increasingly championed such views. Labor unions have also gravitated to a middle-class-forward approach, attracted to it not only as a present strategy, but also as something unions had supposedly supported “for generations.” Kansas City activist intellectual Bill Onasch rightly connects the post–World War II popularity of the idea of a middle-class majority with “a hardening Cold War union bureaucracy,” but the end of the Cold War has not lessened commitment to it.
As with trade unionism, the period of steep decline of the middle class domestically since 1970 nevertheless coincided with the United States being put forward as an exemplar of how to do things right in consolidating a middle class. Fanfare greeted the doubling of the world’s middle class in twenty-five years—1.4 billion people were said to dwell there in 2014. But the new global middle class makes between $4 and $13 dollars per day, leaving most far short of the poverty line in the United States. Other optimists predicted that the US example and neoliberal policies could lead to a new dawn in which 90 percent of India would be middle class. More sober analysts suggest the actual figure is nearer to 2 percent. The labor journalist Paul Mason argues that the example of the United States and its “rich-world counterparts” does attract followers globally but leads “steadily to stratification and more service-oriented work.”
The idea that the United States occupies a special, leading, and exemplary place—the world’s exceptional nation because of its middle class—has existed inchoately for a long while, but the connection between exceptionalism and the middle class has tightened over time. Patriots and European travelers saw the United States as especially promising for its particular freedoms, distribution of (formerly native) land, and absence of aristocratic and churchly restraints. Frederick Jackson Turner’s writings on the frontier, like some of the work of Marx and Engels, posited that access to land set the United States apart from class-ridden Europe, with Turner adding that the frontier itself made for democratic practices. However, for Marx, Engels, and Turner, this process had an end, as frontiers ran out and troubles lay ahead.
The precise term “American exceptionalism” came much later and amidst rich irony. One recent account has it originating from Stalin, who in 1929 was searching for a name for a heresy within the world Communist movement he dominated. Jay Lovestone, a US labor leader, led a tendency inside the Communist Party, with his faction arguing in the late 1920s that new strategies were necessary because US workers were not ready for revolution. Stalin branded this deviation as “American exceptionalism,” and Lovestone, arguing his corner, did use the phrase “middle class” to describe elements to be targeted in party appeals.
The most famous Cold War intellectual to take up what made the United States special, Louis Hartz, argued in 1955 in his incredibly ambitious volume, The Liberal Tradition in America, that lacking a feudal order against which to rebel, the United States could only generate limited traditions of revolt and even of social democracy. Hartz so fully embraced the idea that the United States was hardwired against socialist movements that he is often mistakenly remembered as a champion of the glories of American exceptionalism. He is better understood as a radical writing sadly and with deep awareness of Marxism. Liberal Tradition’s one use of “exceptionalism”—the term “American exceptionalism” does not appear—refers to the debates among Marxists in the 1930s.
Hartz does use “middle class” centrally, though far less frequently than “bourgeois,” as the goal is to discuss bourgeois revolutions and their ideas, more than class structures. Far from seeking to ground exceptional national glory in the middle class, Hartz stressed the limitations of both that class and the nation. “The Americans,” he lamented, “though models to all the world in the middle-class way of life, lacked the passionate middle-class consciousness which saturated the liberal thought of Europe.”
The “middle class nation” and “American exceptionalism” found each other late, and under specific circumstances. As the economic indices showing stagnating wages and soaring inequality have increasingly challenged both notions since 1970, the view that the United States is the product of their marriage has only gained political currency. Especially over the past quarter century, the reflexive response to middle-class decline has been to promise to defend the middle class and, through it, the nation. When Burton Bledstein began his valuable 1976 history of the middle class with the words, “From the 1840s until the present, the idea of the middle class has been central to the history of American social attitudes,” Cold War politics animated the over-reading involved in that assertion. The ersatz ubiquity that Bledstein assumed across space and time—one that led the historian Loren Baritz to liken the study of the middle class to “searching for air”—fed in particular on the American exceptionalist certainties of Bledstein’s next sentence: “No other national identity has been so essentially concerned with this one idea.”
When Ronald Reagan established the potency of the direct invocation of “American exceptionalism” electorally in the 1980s and Bill Clinton the power of direct appeals to middle-class dreams in the 90s, the two came to prosper together among politicians and pundits.
In 1996, the eminent centrist political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset revisited Hartz’s ideas. Forty years down the road, American exceptionalism was front and center in his celebrated book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. The middle class immediately made an entrance, as Lipset wrote of a nation “dominated by pure bourgeois, individualistic values” over the long haul. Although Lipset allowed that in some of the best-designed studies, more people in the United States identified as working class than middle class at the time, the emphasis on a nation exceptional because it was middle class ran through the volume. Hartz’s gloom gave way in Lipset’s gleeful study. Between 1980 and 2000, a recent study shows, there was “a lot of talk” about American exceptionalism—457 mentions in national publications. However, in the new century’s first decade, this ballooned to 2,558 times. The first two years of the 2010s nearly doubled that of the entire prior decade. The most over-the-top example came in 2011 with the publication of conservative congressman and historian of sorts Newt Gingrich’s A Nation like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters.
An early campaign profile for the relatively left-of-center 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren appeared in a Salt Lake City publication under the headline, “Make the Middle Class Great Again.” Her campaign must have smiled. As we have seen, commitment to saving the middle class animates campaigns across party lines and seems heartfelt at times. Obama, for example, faced no more elections when he said in 2014: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” However, identification with the middle class wanes situationally. Beyond elections, the liabilities of pairing the “middle class nation” and American exceptionalist tropes are clear. In a 2017 Pew poll, a large majority of under-30s believed that “there are other countries better than the US.” At such a relatively clear-sighted juncture, identifying American exceptionalism exclusively with the middle class risks disappearing the experiences of the poor, of victims of racial oppression, and of working-class people.
In still another way, the joining of the middle-class nation with the idea of American exceptionalism encourages fighting on terrain favorable to the Trumps of the world and to capital. Who is imagined and catered to when middle-class salvation gains a hearing? Since the middle class is such a hodgepodge of workers and owners involved in all sorts of different social relations, it can hardly surprise us that those writing about it consistently make one segment of it stand in for the imagined whole. To his credit, C. Wright Mills titled his major book on the subject White Collar, and referred in his subtitle to the Middle Classes, plural. Still, his work is taken as if it apprehends the whole of an actually existing middle class. British and German writers have similarly connected the middle class to a certain kind of employment (and dress), using either “white collar” or the very cool phrase “black-coated worker.” John and Barbara Ehrenreich shift back and forth between calling their subject the “professional-managerial class” and the “professional middle class.” Her singly authored book on the subject, Fear of Falling, nevertheless uses a subtitle identifying the whole middle class as the book’s subject. Immediately after that, the introduction bemoans how inadequate the very term middle class is.
When we connect American exceptionalism to a middle-class nation, the small numbers of entrepreneurs in the United States acquire inflated importance. To suppose that the United States has “always” been middle class requires that huge numbers of farmers and a small number of independent businesspersons and professionals of the early United States be the founding fathers of the modern middle class. Their storied (and overstated) virtues of manly independence come to be writ large onto the modern United States, which has for a long time not resembled a society of independent proprietors at all. As the historian Steve Fraser recently summarized this transformation, the (white, male) nation in 1820 was “80 percent self-employed and by 1940 80 percent worked for someone—or something—else.” Family farms (and their male heads of household), so important to the mythos of American exceptionalism, have long ranked among the least “American” things in the modern world. Less than one-half of one percent of the world’s 500 million family farms are in the United States, which trails the European nations significantly and the Global South utterly in percentage of farmers.
Going behind such numbers, Mills wrote, “The nineteenth-century farmer and businessman were generally thought to be stalwart individuals—their own men.” The white-collar man is “always somebody’s man.” We would be tempted to add “or women,” but it is not quite that easy, as the attendant ideology was and is masculine, though not always in a very self-assured way. The great dissenting US scholar G. William Domhoff, for example, introduced Richard Parker’s searing book on the new middle class a half century ago by describing its subject as “a class of property paper pushers and people manipulators who must go along to get along.” Interestingly, it was experience in this new middle class that sometimes sharpened dreams of being self-employed. In 1905, a poll of retail clerks found that half of them had imbibed enough of what the German historian Jürgen Kocka described as “businessman as model” ideology that they not only hoped but believed that they were transitioning to self-employment. After World War II, when unionized autoworkers were often seen as ascending to middle-class status, Eli Chinoy’s celebrated study of them found widespread desires to instead own a business or farm.
Today, just one American in sixteen is an entrepreneur, and since about half of small businesses fail within five years, ex-entrepreneur is a more robust category. But the cult worship surrounding this tiny group drives rhetoric and policy. Again, the appeal is bipartisan, with liberal-seeming universities competing manically to see which can most emphasize the entrepreneurial in their vision statements. The peculiar recent US idea that being a businessman or “delivering a payroll” qualifies a candidate for political office finds its roots in the aggrandizement of the entrepreneur. Not even the Trump presidency has yet managed to discredit it. Where I live, in Kansas, the recent past has delivered tax cuts that amount to business tax exemptions specifically favoring entrepreneurs and established big businesses, bringing public education to the brink of ruin. The highest-paid state employee, University of Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, suddenly found the bulk of his income untaxed, coming from allegedly entrepreneurial activity, not salaried coaching.
We deserve bigger and better explanations for this obsession than mis-leadership by demagogues. Michel Foucault’s theorizing of the “entrepreneurial self” among those far from being self-employed offers clues. The desire to someday become “independent,” the importance of housing market decisions to personal wealth, and the self-management of retirement accounts, as well as the calibration of how and when to invest in one’s own re-skilling, help shape such a self. The political chorus regarding an exceptional middle-class nation, supposedly chock-full of entrepreneurs, remains with us, powerfully influencing how “saving the middle class” is heard and acted upon.
The Sinking Middle Class by David R. Roediger is available from OR Books.