The use of "middle class" in the public discourse
Oct 19, 2010

The use of "middle class" in the public discourse

Most people, it seems, view themselves as either middle or working class and polititians use these terms very frequently to describe their target audience. That this is their target audience represents two main factors. The first is the fairly vacuous one that they are just using the term which applies to how the majority view themselves. However, I think there is also a component where it is selecting one demographic over the other for political reasons, in particular at the expense of the poor and this gets represented in the policies of administrations.

Consider the case that a majority of Americans consider themselves middle or working class: ^
In Fox News/Opinion Dynamics polling that asked respondents to situate themselves in an "economic class," 50 percent termed themselves "middle class." "Working class" was the runner-up, at 37 percent.

Few characterized themselves as either "upper class" (5 percent) or "lower class" (8 percent). Despite the flood of water under the bridge in the past 13 years, the new figures are nearly identical to those found in a similar 1997 poll, when the split was 6 percent "upper," 49 percent "middle," 35 percent "working" and 8 percent "lower" (with the rest undecided).

Asking people to pick the "social class" to which they belong, a New York Times/CBS News poll offered a slightly different menu of choices. But the results were similar, with a majority classifying themselves as either "upper-middle class" (12 percent) or "middle class" (41 percent), while about one-third (34 percent) said they're "working class." A mere 1 percent said they're "upper class," while 11 percent said they're "lower class." (The other 1 percent declined to choose.)
This may seem surprising considering that arround 15% of American's are actually living below the official poverty line and nearly 10% are currently unemployed officially with unofficial numbers being perhaps twice that. Even above the official poverty line, there are certainly a very large number of people living with very little money. Yet, a large number self identity as working or middle class and shun the term "lower class". Of course, the explanation is likely largely human in nature and not at all a matter of delusion. Nobody desires to be labeled "lower class", people aspire for lives that will be more prosperous or perhaps in the case of the elderly were more prosperous.  Regardless, there is something of a disconnect and it is represented by polititians who frequently pander to the working and middle class ideals as their target audience.    

 Voter Turnout ^
Income (in Quintiles)
Lowest 20%: 36.4 %
Highest 20%: 63.1
No High School 38 %
Some High School 43
High School Graduate 57
Some College 66
College Grad 79
Post-Graduate 84

One partial explanation for this targetting is simply that political participation is higherly correleated with income and education which means that from the perspective of gaining votes pandering on the middle (defined in income terms) is more likely to be productive than pandering towards the lower income levels. The table on the right documents the sharp correspondance between voter turnout and both income and education. Things like newspaper readership are also correlated with income.^

The problem is readily apparant, because it creates a decisive shift in political attention away from poorer, less educated people and as such will represent them proportionally less. In short, the poor are less likely to end up voting, pay attention to things like newspapers discussing politics, and when they do vote may well self identify with polititians catering to the middle class even if the polititians policies don't help or actively hurt them. Any time that a group is not being adequetly represented in a democracy this represents a significant problem and I think there are a lot of poor people who are being rather actively ignored in politics.

"Working class" and "Middle class"  are not the only terms that get used. Two terms  that Obama is particularily fond of is "ordinary americans" and "mainstreet". For all intents and purposes they mean the same thing, that is a large and homogenized group of people that include everybody but the rich which can be rhetorically vilified. As a political strategy it is effective because it includes a nearly maximal target audience.   However, what it does is ignore the legitimate demographical differences that exist between someone making 15k, 60k and 150k a year. When they are all lumped and targeted together as ordinary, middle class living on main street, the policies being discusses are going to be very difficult to appropriately apply to all these people.

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