By Jacob S. Hacker
My opponent says America is a nation in decline. Of our economy, he says we are somewhere on the list beneath Germany, heading south toward Sri Lanka. Well, don’t let anyone tell you that America is second-rate, especially somebody running for President.
Maybe he hasn’t heard that we are still the world’s largest economy. No other nation sells more outside its borders. The Germans, the British, the Japanese can’t touch the productivity of you, the American worker and the American farmer. My opponent won’t mention that. He won’t remind you that interest rates are the lowest they’ve been in 20 years, and millions of Americans have refinanced their homes. You just won’t hear that inflation, the thief of the middle class, has been locked in a maximum security prison…
Now, I know that Americans are uneasy today. There is anxious talk around our kitchen tables. But from where I stand, I see not America’s sunset but a sunrise.
The world changes for which we’ve sacrificed for a generation have finally come to pass, and with them a rare and unprecedented opportunity to pass the sweet cup of prosperity around our American table.
Sounds pretty optimistic to me. Only this was George H. W. Bush, accepting the Republican nomination in 1992. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton was feeling America’s pain: “Tonight 10 million of our fellow Americans are out of work,” he said in his acceptance speech.
Tens of millions more work harder for lower pay. The incumbent President says unemployment always goes up a little before a recovery begins, but unemployment only has to go up by one more person before a real recovery can begin. And Mr. President, you are that man.
A great passage capped with humor, but hardly devoid of gloom.
Of course, Bill Clinton went on to talk about his vision for the nation, about how he would put people first and change the country for the better and clean up government. But that’s the whole point: His message spoke to Americans’ fears and their hopes, their anxieties and their aspirations. And if there’s a single lesson in Clinton’s success–and I think there are more than one, some cautionary and some prescriptive–it’s that a winning economic strategy is rooted in an evocative narrative about why the country is not living up to its potential and how it yet can. That was certainly the story with FDR, the greatest by far of the three presidents whom Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler lionize (and the one, incidentally, that most befuddled the interesting, if preliminary, analysis by Seligman and Zullow that they cite–I guess when you’re fighting the Great Depression and World War II, optimism isn’t essential for success).
Kim, Solomon, and Kessler (as before, “KSK”) strike back hard, but I cannot tell exactly what they are striking back against. Not the notion that everything is hunky dory. They recognize that there are serious challenges and real sources of insecurity. Nor do KSK dispute the importance of linking security with opportunity, though they are certain that insecurity shouldn’t be the only subject, as if anyone in the discussion had suggested it should. (My argument, for example, was that security and opportunity are inextricably interwoven–a point that critics of public and private insurance have long disputed, as I show in The Great Risk Shift, but which those concerned about the health of the middle class should not let slip from their rhetorical and policy arsenal lightly.) Their main point seems to be that the middle class, properly defined, is richer than most of us think. But, as I noted in my last post and elaborate on in a moment, their view of the middle class is too static to capture either Americans’ real sense of insecurity (which KSK wisely don’t deny–they can read the polls, too) or Americans’ real, if often thwarted, aspirations for genuine upward mobility.
I should say right away, however, that I am grateful to KSK for talking about government and the need to restore public faith in it–a point that I emphasized in my last post. Reagan famously said that government isn’t the solution to America’s problems; government is the problem. Today, it’s fair to say that government may not be the solution to the Democrats’ problems, but that running away from government will do nothing to deal with the real problem of rebuilding the tattered public trust in the public sector, or in the Democratic Party. The dominant economic message today is that you must make it on your own, that government’s goal is mostly limited to protecting you from the illegitimate claims of others. There is no way to reverse this long-term tide without reclaiming the ideal that de Tocqueville once termed “self-interest, rightly understood”–the notion that we can achieve personal ends in concert that we cannot dream of achieving alone.
The economic standing of the middle class is constantly in flux, because our economy is constantly in flux. American incomes rise and fall–indeed, rise and fall to a far greater degree than they did a generation ago–and in those rises and those falls are stories of hopes fulfilled and dreams postponed, of expectations realized and expectations dashed. No single story will capture this complex reality. But any story that does not take seriously the legitimate fears Americans have about the increasingly ubiquitous downward trips on our economic roller coaster will fail to speak to today’s middle class.
In any case, the economic standing of the middle class can never be captured in a single statistical snapshot, because the middle class is an aspiration and ideal, not just a set of numbers in a Census table. Americans with incomes much, much lower than those that KSK hold up consider themselves solidly middle class. Indeed, those white voters with $23,700 in annual income who sat on the dividing line between the parties in 2002 probably consider themselves middle class. Which, come to think of it, is a good reason to be skeptical that the Democrats’ problems with the middle class are reflective of their failure to target their message more assiduously to families that make $63,300 a year.
What being middle class has historically meant is this: If you work hard and do right by your families, you should enjoy both basic financial security and a fair shot at the American Dream. And it is the loss of this guarantee that increasingly defines the middle class today. Middle class Americans are the new “tweeners”–too rich to receive Medicaid and too poor to know that they’ll always be protected from ruinous health costs, too rich to expect to live on Social Security alone and too poor to know that they’ll be able to put away enough in their 401(k).
The only message that these middle-class Americans have heard loud and clear, whether they’re making $20,000 or $120,000, is that they’re the ones responsible for their successes and their failures, that they are the ones who need to invest in education, take on a mortgage, ensure they have health coverage, put away enough for their retirement–and bail themselves out (now, without traditional bankruptcy protections) if things go bad. No wonder they don’t think government is there for them. It often isn’t. More important, there’s no one telling them that being middle class isn’t just about what you don’t have or what you need to do on your own. It’s about reaching a point on the economic ladder where the grip is more secure, the view more enticing, and the distance to the top shorter.
To place security at the center of Democrats’ economic agenda wouldn’t mean incessantly cataloguing the woes of the middle class, as KSK dismissively put it. It would mean identifying the gaps in the ladder of advancement and fixing them. Policy can’t be an afterthought in this vision; it has to be at the heart of the effort. Messages are one thing; leadership and action are another. And it will take leadership and action aplenty before Americans can look confidently up toward the ladder’s highest rungs, rather than worry about what lies below.