The rise of Newt Gingrich is extraordinary: a card-carrying member of the permanent governing class in Washington embraced by the conservative base of the Republican Party. I would have never imagined it possible.
But these are remarkable, even desperate times. Many Republican Party voters feel that when it comes to government spending we have reached a now-or-never moment. Thus the urgency of the Tea Party, which has shaken the Republican Party Establishment with its take-no-prisoners approach and summary electoral executions.
A politically antithetical but similar sense of urgency has taken hold in the core constituencies of the Democratic Party. Few ended up camping out in public parks as part of the Occupy movement, but polls show that many voters were sympathetic. Unemployment, foreclosures, student loan debt, spending cuts, and more: things seem about to explode.
Perhaps the economy will take off next year, and the political fog will lift. I don’t think so. We are experiencing very deep and fundamental crisis in the American democratic project. The unifying myth of the middle class seems to have passed its use-by date.
During the first century of the American Republic, the yeoman farmer served as the mythic ideal citizen. Thomas Jefferson trumpeted him as the foundation of democracy. His vocation, wrote Horace Greeley, “conduces most directly and palpably to a reverence for Honesty and Truth,” and thus “leads to manliness of character.” Too busy breaking sod to enter into political plots, his can-do mentality shuns political machinations, and his independence makes him an enemy of tyranny.
But America changed. By the end of Horace Greeley’s life, men were flocking to cities and factories to find work. Whether on the South Side of Chicago or Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, the yeoman farmer of old was replaced by a new kind of man—the worker. And a new class emerged—the working class.
Then came the global economic crises of the 1930s, a decade when everything seemed about to explode—and a great deal did. Both nineteenth century liberalism and older forms of elite paternalism lost their constituencies. In their places emerged new ideologies: Marxism and fascism at first, and then the approach that succeeded in defining the second half of the twentieth century: social democracy.
With social democracy—the successful combination of large-scale government with free enterprise—came a new social reality, a middle class
The very name evokes its political significance. Neither high nor low, neither rapacious industrialists nor striking workers, this new class provided America with its new democratic myth.
Whether or not this myth was ever entirely true is of little moment. It is sufficient to acknowledge its power over the American imagination, so much so that sociologists formulated terms like “lower middle class” and “upper middle class” to do justice to the fact that in recent decades the overwhelming majority of Americans thought of themselves as being middle class.
Since World War II our political culture has been organized around a contest for the loyalty of the middle class, which meant that, however partisan, both parties served the same constituency. This created the unity necessary to broker deals to meet many crises, some of which were very severe, as anyone who was alive in the sixties will remember.
Today the middle class myth seems less and less believable. Globalization has led to profound economic changes. Chinese workers now compete with people in North Carolina who work in furniture factories and textile mills. The consequences have not been good for high school educated Americans. And it’s not just economic stress. Divorce, serial cohabitation, out of wedlock children: middle class family life is now more difficult to manage and sustain.
The middle class has been eroded from the top as well. The 1 percent singled out by the Occupy Wall Street is actually about 20 percent. They and their children are well positioned to staff and profit from increasingly international markets and bureaucracies, features of globalization likely to become more and more important in the future. Moreover, for all the moral relativism abroad in elite culture, the top 20 percent have largely preserved the family-sustaining mores of the old bourgeois morality.
Like the yeoman farmers a hundred years or so ago who rallied behind William Jennings Bryan, middle class conservatives intuitively know that their era is ending. Today their cross of gold is the cross of government: regulation, taxes, spending, and deficits. They will rally behind any preacher, no matter how improbable, who sermonizes against these evils, as the serial enthusiasms for Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, and now Gingrich demonstrates.
The Democrats have their own difficulties. Poll data shows the hardcore liberals are frustrated with Obama. Like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party has been built around the now failing middle class myth, and it’s Establishment, which is insulated from social reality, as all Establishment are, is also being disoriented by voters who are living that failure. Everybody cannot be a government employee.
Without a unifying myth, which requires at least a plausible basis in social reality, our democratic mode of government tends toward intense conflicts, and only pragmatic, temporary truces, for the ideological and social bases for lasting compromise becomes weak. This is what we see happening today. Both parties are devolving toward constituencies that have less and less overlap.
Today’s political polarization may continue for a long time. Unifying myths cannot be made to order. They are not invented but minted, shaped and formed out of pre-existing social realities by the sharp blows of political rhetoric.
Can we re-engineer social democracy to protect and sustain the now fragile middle class? Is there a new social reality around that will provide a new basis for social stability? I don’t know, but of this I’m sure: You can win elections with 51 percent of the vote, but in a democratic culture you can’t rule without a unifying myth that commands the assent of a super-majority.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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