During the 2008 Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, in St. Louis, Biden offered a memorable brief on behalf of struggling communities like the one in Pennsylvania where he spent his childhood. Biden, whose common-man bona fides were seen as an antidote to Barack Obama's Ivy League credentials and relative aloofness, spoke evocatively of the pain felt by a portion of America that is more usually described in the gauzy, romantic tones of American greatness. "Look, the people in my neighborhood, they get it," Biden said. "They know they've been getting the short end of the stick. So walk with me in my neighborhood, go back to my old neighborhood, in Claymont, an old steel town, or go up to Scranton with me. These people know the middle class has gotten the short end. The wealthy have done very well. Corporate America has been rewarded. It's time we change it."
In hindsight, what's notable about Biden's statement is not how it presaged the populist concerns of this year's Presidential election but the fact that he referred to his neighbors-steelworkers, denizens of factory towns - as middle class, not as working class. In fact, the phrase "working class" came up twice during the debate - but it was Palin who said it, not Biden. Things didn't change much rhetorically in the 2012 election. Obama and Mitt Romney, in the course of three Presidential debates, invoked the "middle class" forty-three times but never mentioned the proletariat.
For decades, both American culture and American politics have elided the differences between salaried workers and those who are paid hourly, between college-educated professionals and those whose purchasing power is connected to membership in a labor union. Some ninety percent of Americans, including most millionaires, routinely identify as middle class. For many years, this glossing over of the distinctions between the classes served a broad set of interests, particularly during the Cold War, when any reference to class carried a whiff of socialist sympathies. Americans considered themselves part of a larger whole, and social animosities were mostly siphoned off in the direction of racial resentment. But, this year, Americans are once again debating class.
We are clearly out of practice. The current language of "income inequality" is a low-carb version of the Old Left's "class exploitation. "The new phrase lacks rhetorical zing; it's hard to envision workers on a picket line singing rousing anthems about "income inequality." The term lacks a verb, too, so it's possible to think of the condition under discussion as a random social outcome, rather than as the product of deliberate actions taken by specific people. Bernie Sanders has tended to frame his position as a defense of an imperiled middle class, but he has also called out the "greedy billionaires" and "Wall Street"-a synecdoche for exploitation in general.
Donald Trump's populist appeals are all the more remarkable given that the modern Republican Party has been the largest beneficiary of this collapsing of class interests. Ever since Ronald Reagan's Presidency, progressives have pondered why working-class and poor whites vote Republican, against their own interests. The fact that the charge is being led on the right by a billionaire real-estate developer, however, suggests that the new recognition of class is not without its contradictions. It's also worth noting that Romney, the man leading the attempt to quell this populist uprising, on behalf of the Party's alarmed establishment, is a multimillionaire who lost the previous election, in part, because he dismissed forty-seven percent of Americans as "freeloaders."
Strikingly, the emerging dialogue on class is informed by the ways in which we have typically talked about race. In 1976, the majority of welfare recipients in the United States were not black. But when, during the Presidential campaign that year, Reagan made his famous comments about the "welfare queen," they were widely taken to mean that the problem wasn't poor people in general but, rather, certain blacks in inner cities, who were purportedly cheating the system (and whose votes the Republican Party had already jettisoned). Today, in the battle over, say, public-sector unions, it's hard not to hear an echo of those complaints about social parasitism, though when Governor Scott Walker, of Wisconsin, campaigned to strip most public-sector unions of their collective-bargaining rights he did so in the language of Madison progressivism: "We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots."
There are other hints that the old stereotypes about inner-city blacks are beginning to be deployed against working-class whites. Heightened mortality rates among middle-aged working-class whites and the concomitant spike in opioid addiction have, on the whole, generated sympathetic examinations of social displacement, in which addiction is seen as a public-health concern symptomatic of the changing economy, as opposed to a sign of moral failure. But, last month, in National Review, Kevin Williamson wrote:
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns… The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump's speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.
These are the communities that Biden spoke of in 2008. Yet, according to Williamson, the apt metaphor isn't getting the short end of the stick but dropping the ball. In 2010, Charles Murray published "Coming Apart," a lamentation on the decline among poor whites of religiosity, of the work ethic, and of family values. It received just a fraction of the attention paid to his 1994 book, "The Bell Curve," which argued that a supposed intellectual inferiority factored into the plight of poor blacks. But in 2016 there is a new market for the ideas in "Coming Apart. "The fact that we are examining class may be novel, but it is almost certain that what we'll hear said about poverty won't be.
The New Yorker, 25 April 2016