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.