03.14.2017 10:19 AM

Whither thou goest, middle class, in your dark S.U.V. at night?

I was mad.

I was listening to a cabinet minister on the radio this morning. He was invoking the penultimate progressive political totemic, the vaunted “middle class.” (The ultimate progressive divinity being “progressive values,” which no progressive can define, and which therefore makes it the very problem it seeks to address.)

He went on and on and on about “the middle class,” apparently secure in the knowledge that we all know what that is. “Nobody knows what the middle class is,” I yelled at the radio, but the radio didn’t listen. “It’s a political fiction. It’s a bumpersticker phrase. It’s an illusion that breeds cynicism.”

But the radio ignored me.  The cabinet minister kept blathering on about “the middle class.”

I remembered that I have written about this, many times before. Here’s one thing that I’ve written, plucked from my book Fight the Right:

Along with the right words, and better focus on values, progressives also need an alternative narrative. More particularly, we need a narrative that connects with the values of citizens in a way that they understand.

The great global recession of 2008 – and the cataclysm of despair that it unleashed – has receded somewhat. But its effects are still felt all over, and nowhere as much as among what we once called the middle class. Foreclosures, layoffs and broken dreams are everywhere to be seen. The ongoing legacy of the recession is pain and misery, and a rising tide of anger.

Where, in the midst of all of this, has been the Left? What have liberals had to say about all of this gloom and despair? Mostly, nothing. Progressives have been virtually invisible at the very time when the old dogmas and old fixes of the Right are, to many, a cruel joke…

“There are several reasons for [the] lack of Left-wing mobilization,” writes [Francis] Fukuyama, “but chief among them is a failure in the realm of ideas. For the past generation, the ideological high ground on economic issues has been held by a libertarian Right.”

What does that mean? It means that Western democracy (and the middle class that at one time gave it purpose and legitimacy), are at risk of vanishing entirely if the Left does not get its act together. For instance: median incomes in the United States and other Western democracies have been stagnating since the 1970s. “[The middle class] may today benefit from cheap cell phones, inexpensive clothing, and Facebook, but they increasingly cannot afford their own homes, or health insurance, or comfortable pensions when they retire,” Fukuyama writes.

The centre of capitalism, as everyone from the Occupiers to the billionaires at Davos have lately observed, cannot hold. To many, it is a well-intentioned but essentially failed theory. But the Left, Fukuyama declares, is absent from this crucial discussion, and is also AWOL from offering cogent alternatives. “One of the most puzzling features of the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis,” he says, “is that, so far, populism has taken primarily a Right-wing form, not a Left-wing one. In the United States, for example, although the Tea Party is anti-elitist in its rhetoric, its members vote for conservative politicians who serve the interests of precisely those financiers and corporate elites they claim to despise.”

The academic Left, the feminist theorists, the post-modernists and the professional multiculturalism advocates all have plenty to say, Fukuyama concedes, but not to those they most need to achieve real democratic (and economic) change. “It is impossible to generate a mass progressive movement,” Fukuyama dryly notes, “on the basis of such a motley coalition: most of the working-and lower-middle-class citizens victimized by the system are culturally conservative, and would be embarrassed to be seen in the presence of allies like this.”

The biggest problem for the Left, Fukuyama would agree, is a lack of credibility, a lack of authenticity – and the lack of a values-enriched narrative. What is needed is an ideology for the future. Fukuyama, again:“Politically, the new ideology would need to reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitim[ize] government as an expression of the public interest…It would have to argue forthrightly for more [wealth] redistribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics.” 

The task, of course, is immense, and the rewards uncertain. Why bother? Because, Fukuyama says, “Inequality will continue to worsen. The current concentration of wealth has already become self-reinforcing: the financial sector has used its lobbying clout to avoid more onerous forms of regulation. Schools for the well-off are better than ever; those for everyone else continue to deteriorate. Elites in all societies use their superior access to the political system to protect their interests.”

The Left must step up.

But here’s the thing: as evidenced by the ritual invocation of “the middle class” on the radio this morning – without defining what that is, and who makes it up, and why it is so important in a civil society – it is just so much political prattle.  It is words.

The Right don’t even pretend to represent the middle class.  But as Brexit showed us in June 2016 – and as Trump showed us in November 2016 – the middle class aren’t offended by that, not in the least.  They will vote against their own economic self-interest, every time, if someone comes along and talks to them in the values-laden lingo favoured by the Right, and abhorred by the Left.

Want to reach the middle class, and mobilize them?  Reach their hearts, not just their heads.

10 Comments

  1. doconnor says:

    I’ve only watched for first few minutes of the NDP debate so far, but there was specific calls to move beyond appealing to just the middle class. The NDP has always had lots of policy addressing these issues, but people ignore them because they don’t come from big business.

  2. Warren says:

    Not the word. The concept. Try and keep up.

  3. Robert Frindt says:

    “Politically, the new ideology would need to reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitim[ize] government as an expression of the public interest…It would have to argue forthrightly for more [wealth] redistribution and present a realistic route to ending interest groups’ domination of politics.”

    The huge irony of Fukuyama writing this, and Kinsella reposting this, is that Trump broke with the donor class interests of both parties in D.C. to support tariffs and immigration law enforcement in defiance of conventional wisdom economics.

    The response to Trump from those elites and the left has been: “globalization is unstoppable”, “tariffs increase prices”, “those jobs are gone forever due to automation”, “labor costs will increase for the work that Americans do not want to do”, “those factories will never come back”… blah… blah… blah…

    Using tariffs to stop outsourcing and bring back those factories IS “to reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics”.

    As is enforcing the borders and cutting down H1B numbers.

    These Trump policies are also a major wealth and income redistribution – from the coastal elite back to the rest of the country.

    An end to open borders and “free” trade means increases in labor and production costs for the coastal elites in the USA, and higher wages and profits for legal USA workers and manufacturers.

    • The Doctor says:

      God, what a crock of shit. The only significant redistribution of wealth that’s going to take place under Trump is that the rich will get even richer, once those yummy tax cuts kick in. Jethro in the backwoods of Virginia doesn’t benefit one iota from a capital gains tax cut. And a huge chunk of America’s richest people, who will benefit from those tax cuts, live in places like New York and California — you know, where those horrible coastal elites live.

      Your protectionist dream is a fantasy. To whom, exactly, are these factories going to be selling their overpriced shit? Meanwhile, Trump’s ideologue Education Secretary is doing all she can to destroy the public education system — because we all know that the sure way to thrive in an advanced economy is to have a shitty public education system, alongside a private one that only rich people can afford or meaningfully access.

      • pat says:

        Shitty education is a hallmark of less freedom, less rights, and more poverty. So many examples of this around the world, and throughout time. I get a kick out of this line, because it is so tragically bullshit, that certain folks are job creators, while other folks aren’t – inference being that they need tax cuts to create jobs because they’re the job creators and nobody else could do the same. Truth is when you empower human potential across the socioeconomic spectrum the economy improves – that poor kid Elvis sang about in the ghetto could have started a business, instead of buying a gun, had he had access to better public education, health care, and a healthy diet.

    • Tim White says:

      As the management consultant Warren Bennis famously observed: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
      I’m with the Doctor. I’m suggesting some reading on robots and multi national capitalism.

      • Robert Frindt says:

        I’ve been hearing this hype since Unimation was controlling its robots with vacuum tubes.

        Zero employee factories – I’ll believe it when I see it.

        It will happen at the same time as the “paperless office”.

  4. Steve T says:

    Test using a different email address, per the Facebook msg

  5. Eastern Rebellion says:

    When politicians talk about the middle class, it is fair to observe that they are often concerned primarily with trying to attract votes. After all, that is where most of the votes are to be found. I think all of our mainstream parties (Conservative, Liberal & NDP) sincerely have the best interests of the populace at heart. Canada’s middle class to me seems to be doing okay. I think we need to be careful about comparing the situation here to that south of the border.

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