If there is a single frustration that unites members of the American upper-middle class today, it is the unpleasant surprise of finding oneself a target of populist rage. Angry and concerned themselves about the rise of a plutocratic elite of super-rich financiers and entrepreneurs, upper-middle class professionals are by and large ready to start up a political movement to rein in the plutocracy. It is therefore a rude shock to many of these Americans to realize that, for many of their less well-off fellow citizens, they are a primary target of voter rage. The upper-middle class wants to lead an aroused populace against the true enemy, but the populace isn’t listening.
Upper-middle class Americans, notably those in the professional classes, have seen their incomes rise over the last generation, but not nearly as rapidly as those of the truly wealthy above them. It is that gap that has arrested their attention, not the one between themselves and blue-collar workers below. Doctors, professors, journalists, even most lawyers today are, generally speaking, absolutely and relatively better off than plumbers, retail workers, machine operators and truckers when compared with the 1970s, but the gap between most professionals and high-flying investment bankers and the superstars in every field, whose recent rise has been truly extraordinary and historic, is even wider than it used to be. The professional upper-middle class identifies with populist anger about the wealthy and Wall Street. What it cannot understand is that the plumbers, factory workers and truckers often seem angrier with them than they are with Wall Street malefactors of far greater wealth.1
Analysts like Thomas Frank interpret the failure of the lower- and middle-middle class to focus on the real plutocracy rather than the upper-middle class as a symptom of the false consciousness of American workers that has historically stunted the development of genuinely progressive ideology and social movements in the United States. There is something to be said for this point of view, but it is important to understand that the real social crisis in the United States is not marked or caused by the appearance of great fortunes. Rather, it lies in the economic crisis of middle-class life. The anger fueling the populism of both the Left and the Right is not so much jealousy and envy that a tiny minority is making pots of money; it is anxiety and disappointment about the darkening prospects of everyone else.
There are of course connections between the middle-class crisis and the rise of the New Rich, but they are not simple or even direct. There are also connections between the current crisis and similar ones of previous epochs. These are not simple either, but studying them may help us understand something about what is happening today.
The contemporary crisis of the middle strata in American society is perhaps best compared to the long and painful decline of the family farm. The American dream we know in our time—a good job and a nice house in a decent suburb with good schools—is not the classic version. The dream that animated the mass of colonists, that drove the Revolution and that drew millions of immigrants to the United States during the first century of independence, was the dream of owning one’s own farm. Up until the 20th century, most Americans lived in rural communities. Well into the 20th century, agriculture was by far the most important occupation in which Americans were engaged (to say nothing of the rest of the world).
The difference between the overwhelming majority of Americans in agriculture and the large majority of people elsewhere (except for similarly blessed places like Australia, Canada and New Zealand) was that Americans and their Commonwealth cousins generally owned the land they farmed. With the exception of Southern sharecroppers, American farmer families had no landlords. They were therefore free to decide what to grow and how to grow it, and they alone enjoyed the benefits of their hard work and productivity.
The reality of Americans as independent owners of land not only formed the critical socio-economic datum of the Republic’s formative era, it also served as the inspiration for a romantic political idealism about pastoral life. From Jefferson to Lincoln, American leaders envisioned a benign union of new science and new politics, with the innovative, prosperous and intellectually active gentry farmer as the model of the future. In the Old World, farmers may have toiled at the mercy of barons with minds rendered brutish in the process; in the New World their liberty and property would enable them to become a mass landed nobility of a kind the world had never seen. Together, the facts and the romance of farming led antebellum American farmers to believe that, by historical standards, they were not only very prosperous but were bound to become even more so. This was, in a nutshell, Whig agriculture.
That dream began to fade after the Civil War. The technology of the 19th century did not just open the Great Plains to farming; new farming areas opened up all over the world. The agricultural boom came to a gradual and painful end as endemic overproduction lowered farm incomes globally. Undercapitalized family farms were unable to adjust or compete—especially in the marginal areas settled under the Homestead Act. A slow process of agricultural decline and dispossession started in the 1870s and culminated in the disasters of the Great Depression. Essentially, popular demand for the American dream of a family farm led the government into policies that encouraged a farm bubble. Americans overinvested in farms even as family farms were becoming less sustainable. Over time they sought various forms of government subsidy and income support as they clung to the only American dream they knew. But the laws of economics could not be gainsaid, and the independent family farmer, the class Thomas Jefferson believed above all guaranteed the future of the American republic, gradually decayed and largely disappeared into the maw of contemporary agribusiness.
Much of the drama of American politics in those years revolved around the efforts of agrarian America to save its way of life. The return to the gold standard following the Civil War and the high interest rates and deflationary economic policies required to keep the dollar level in gold terms against the British pound intensified the stress on farmers. Small farmers produced goods like wheat, corn and livestock. Those goods were in chronic oversupply as American farmers competed with Argentines, Australians, Ukrainians and others around the world. The Greenback and Free Silver movements thus sought to inflate the cash value of farm produce and reduce the real value of farm debt.
The epic struggle of farm interests against those of the railroads sprang from the same causes. Farmers had to ship their bulky commodities to distant markets, and freight charges ate away at the farmers’ slender margins. William Jennings Bryan voiced the desperation of the family farmers in his presidential campaigns, but the future of the United States lay with the upper-middle class urban progressives who supported men like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—and who tended to focus more on addressing the problems of the cities rather than those of the country.
The struggle for “parity”, payments and subsidies that would allow farmers to achieve income parity with urban consumers, was another political movement that sought to reverse the economic tide flowing against the classic form of the American dream. Depression-era novels and songs about the desperate Okie migration to southern California reflected the accelerated pace of agricultural decline that took place during the 1930s. The Farm Aid concerts and protests of the 1970s and 1980s were a last gasp of a movement that once expressed the interests of the mass of the American people.
So the old American dream died, but Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman reunited urban progressives with the American masses to recast the dream in a new form. In the old dream, property and production were allied. The American was a property owner, and that property produced the livelihood that made Americans prosperous and independent. In the 20th century, America shifted from a nation of independent farmers to a nation of homeowners. They were still property owners, but they no longer derived their income from the homestead. American families used to have a farm; now they had a home and a job.
FDR and Truman had figured out how to use progressive means to serve populist ends. The growing professional upper-middle classes and the institutions in which they worked would protect the average American from the ravages of big business and economic turmoil. Keynesian economics applied by technocratic economists would maintain full employment while holding inflation at bay. A regulated economy, mostly consisting of stable large monopolies (like AT&T;) or oligopolies (like the Big Three media networks and the Big Three auto companies), provided good and lasting jobs at good wages to blue- as well as white-collar American workers. Scientists and engineers would come up with technological advances that raised productivity and allowed a generally rising living standard. A professional civil service regulated business in the interest of the “little man.” Professionals like doctors and lawyers lived better than the average blue-collar worker (my grandfather was a doctor; his wife bought a new Buick every three years, whether she really needed one or not), but the gap between upper- and lower-middle class incomes was much less than it has since become. And social mobility was such that it was not far-fetched to suppose that the son of a plumber or an auto mechanic could become a doctor or a lawyer, and that the son of a university professor could become a used car salesman.
So it was that the “crabgrass Jacksonian” recreated the historical sense of American independence and prosperity in a suburb. Fannie Mae, born in 1937, amounted to the new Homestead Act that put home ownership within reach of the masses. The rapid rise in blue- and white-collar incomes after World War II, aided greatly by the GI Bill, allowed working Americans to sustain a prosperous and stable lifestyle that made them the envy of the world.
The phenomenon of rapid income increases that are also socially broad-based has now dimmed. One result is that the crabgrass Jacksonians are today experiencing some of the fear and frustration their great-grandparents felt as the crisis of the family farm deepened in the late 19th century. This populist anger and anxiety may in time attach itself to the great fortunes of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, investors like Warren Buffett and speculators aplenty. The populism of the Left—the antiwar and anti-Halliburton movements that fringed the American scene during the long-sagging decline of the Bush Administration—is already there, if surprisingly weak in its political voice.
In a worst-case scenario, that populism could turn anti-Semitic as it did during the 1920s and 1930s, when a resurgent KKK and figures like Father Charles Coughlin linked fears of cultural disintegration and the domination of high finance to the wicked machinations of the Eternal Jew. We are, I think, still far from that today. Pat Buchanan and his ilk have so far been unable to stitch together a big-picture lie of Hollywood Jews destroying religion and culture, Wall Street Jews attacking the middle class, and Zionist Jews dragging the United States into unwinnable foreign wars all to serve the dark agenda of the Chosen People. What we have instead is an anger aimed at another target.
The most prominent example of class warfare in America today is a class civil war arising out of an American middle class divided against itself. It is divided vertically, with the lower-middle and middle-middle classes resenting the professionals in the upper-middle class; the upper-middle class, meanwhile, is divided horizontally, with small businesspeople angry at the professionals and the civil servants among them. (Doctors get a partial pass; they are expensive, but they can save your life. Lawyers and bureaucrats, on the other hand, are just as expensive but not nearly as helpful.)
The resentment is a potent cocktail of financial envy (upper-middle class incomes have risen even as other middle-class incomes stagnated or fell), status envy (the professor and the lawyer look down on the car dealer and the hardware store owner as well as the store clerk and the waitperson), and political resentment. The political resentment is particularly complex. Essentially, much of America believes that the outcome of the Progressive movement and the New Deal was a new kind of society. The rich remained rich, though they were taxed at higher rates and their social power was checked; the crabgrass Jacksonians got a house and a job; and the professional class would keep everything running. “Experts” trained in universities would keep their eye on the system, making the necessary adjustments to ensure that the basic features of the American economic model remained in good operating order.
There is a widespread perception in America today that the professionals and intellectuals of the upper-middle class have betrayed that calling—that, essentially, they forgot who was paying their salaries. During the past thirty years of falling real incomes for non-supervisory private-sector workers, the upper-middle class did little or nothing to change things. Au contraire, the intellectuals and the academics mostly served as cheerleaders for globalization, automation and other processes believed responsible for the breakdown of the old model. Organizations like Fannie Mae, with the blessings of the intellectuals and the political class, promoted precisely the developments in the mortgage market that have led something like 20 percent of American mortgage holders to be underwater, owing more on their mortgage than their home is now worth.
The administrators and professionals were supposed to regulate financial markets to prevent wild crashes. They didn’t; Wall Street caused a huge mess but for the most part did not suffer from it nearly as much as those on and around Main Street. They were supposed to provide an intellectual framework for American trade policy that ensured that the middle class would benefit from the gains resulting from trade. They didn’t; Americans have been able to buy a lot of cheap imports but largely at the expense of the manufacturing jobs the middle class depended on. They were supposed to manage the housing system to make it part of a stable, sensible and prudent mechanism that generated wealth for the middle class. They didn’t; instead they abetted a bubble. They were supposed to exercise a dignified restraint in their pursuit of money. They mostly didn’t; instead they forgot their responsibility to the general good as they engaged enthusiastically in a private scramble for wealth.
The professional ethos was very different in those earlier days when FDR and Harry S. Truman rebirthed the dream. When my grandfather’s patients couldn’t pay their bills during the Depression, he carried their debts for years without interest or seeking payment. Baskets of corn, peanuts and other agricultural goods would often appear on his back porch—something between a note of gratitude and a little interest in kind. When his medical partner left to serve in World War II, my grandfather treated all of his patients and, when his partner returned, presented him with a check covering every single dime the partner’s share of the practice had earned. My grandfather was considered an honest man and a good one, but he did no more than live up to a personal code that many professionals of the day took for granted and unquestioningly obeyed.
To those outside the professional middle class, the shift between the old and new styles can look like a pattern of rapacity and incompetence. The institutions managed by the professional classes—law, health, education, government—are all witnessing costs that rise faster than overall levels of inflation while the perceived quality of their output is diminishing. Almost every interaction that the professional upper-middle class has with the rest of society contributes to the perception that this segment of society has lost touch with its basic responsibility to serve the public interest and is obsessed instead with raising its own income, power and status. It is profoundly unfair to the many honorable and decent people serving in the professions, but the image of these professions in society at large looks a little like that of John Edwards: the sleazy and hypocritical charlatan who professed an undying love for his wife and the poor as he amassed a huge fortune and broke his marriage vows. The high ideals he professed only made his betrayals more disgusting.
The political argument of the professional classes today boils down to this: Give us more resources and more power and we will tame the malefactors of great wealth and bring decent governance back to the country. In the autumn of 2010 at least, that argument is not working very well. The marriage of progressives and populists is in trouble. Crabgrass Jacksonians do not trust the professional class anymore: not the journalists, not the professors, not the bureaucrats, not the career politicians. They believe that if these folks get more resources and power they will simply abuse them. Give the educators more money and the professors will go off on more weird and arcane theoretical tangents and the teachers’ unions will kick back and relax. In neither case will they spend more time helping your kids get ready for real life. Give the bureaucrats more power and they will impose more counterproductive regulations that throttle small business. Give the lawyers more power and they will raise prices and clog commerce with lawsuits and red tape. Give the politicians more time in office and more tax money to spend and they will continue stroking the fat cats while calling rhetorically for change.
In no case (with the possible and partial exception of the military) do crabgrass Jacksonians believe that the professional upper-middle class is sincerely determined to bend its efforts and its power to the single and sole goal of maintaining the well-being of the people who pay their salaries and fees. In that sense they see the emergence of the real plutocrats and financial powers as simply an extreme case of the disregard for the public welfare that marks the professional class as a whole. Investment bankers are simply better at doing what the whole upper-middle class is trying to do: loot and pillage the population at large by wielding its cleverness and its connections as a weapon.
This seems crazy to the average upper-middle class professional couple, struggling with high mortgages and education bills of their own, haunted by the difficulties of balancing family and professional commitments, consumed with status anxiety about the future of their children, and fixed on the immense distance between themselves and those (often classmates in college) who have gone on to true wealth. But that is what drives class warfare: the world looks very different to people in different places on the social hierarchy.
The reality is as complex today as it seemed to those living in William Jennings Bryan’s time. Technological change rather than professional malfeasance is in truth driving the breakup of the Crabgrass Utopia of populist Jacksonian memory. The forces breaking up the old American social system are as irresistible as the forces that destroyed the family farm. The failure of American intellectuals and upper-middle-class professionals is not that we failed to preserve the old industrial system; the failure is that, so far, we have not yet come up with a viable and attractive alternative. Until and unless we do, we should expect the middle-class warfare we are experiencing to continue, and even to intensify.
1For evidence of this see the series of surveys cited and summarized in Scott Rasmussen & David Schoen, Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System (HarperCollins, 2010).