Last week I contributed to the National Review symposium, “Conservatives Against Trump.” I was happy to do so. Donald Trump manifests the post-political mentality of our time, encouraging the idea that our problems boil down to stupid, weak, corrupt people being in charge, and that all we need to do is replace them with the smart, strong, and pure. And he seduces us with the spectacle of his personality. But Trump is more symptom than cause of what ails us. Our political establishment, both liberal and conservative, is failing. That’s the deeper political crisis.
Our political culture has always been organized around those who have power, and more often than not that means rich people. If life is good for the non-rich, voters tend to go along with, or even endorse, the system. For a long time, “white middle class Americans” was an expansive cohort that ran from factory workers to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. They thought our political establishment adequate to their interests, and they toggled back and forth between Democrat and Republican on the basis of a fairly narrow range of issues.
The strength of support for Trump and Sanders suggests that’s changing. If both win in Iowa and New Hampshire, that’s because the white middle class is in decline, both economically and culturally. They’re starting to rebel.
This story of decline is often told in racial and ethnic terms: White America is being displaced by a multicultural America. There are elements of truth to this story, but for the most part it’s a massive distraction. Our political culture remains dominated by hopes and anxieties of white Americans.
Consider this fact: Today’s political earthquake is not the result of tensions between white voters and black, brown, or yellow. The later play no role in threats Trump and Sanders pose to their party establishments. The populism we’re seeing stems from the collision of whites who flourish in the global economy—and amidst the cultural changes of the last fifty years—with those who don’t. The drama is about the future of a nearly all-white establishment and a nearly all-white middle class that’s having second thoughts.
We’ve heard a lot about the economic decline of the middle class. Globalization and technological changes have eroded their economic security. This has been ongoing, though it was masked, first by the entry of married women into the workplace, which stabilized what would have otherwise been falling household incomes, and then by a credit binge funded by rising house prices that made middle class families feel richer than they really were. Today the reality is evident: white middle class Americans lack a secure economic basis.
The cultural decline of the white middle class doesn’t get discussed. It should. It’s as important, perhaps more so.
To a degree I could never have anticipated when I was a college student in the early 1980s, it’s possible for smart, well-educated people to get very rich. This has created a culture of ambition that paradoxically erodes middle class confidence. With higher aspirations come an acute sense of who wins and who loses. When I was young, middle class parents wished for their children a more comfortable and successful life, but one in continuity with the broad middle class consensus. That’s no longer true. Today the middle of the middle fears that unless you’re on the way up, you’re on the way down.
And losing is just a matter of failing to be successful insofar as success is now measured in our hyper-competitive meritocracy. When I was coming of age in the 1970s, drug use was already undermining the white middle class. Since then marriage rates among high-school-educated whites have declined and illegitimacy has increased. A priest I know serves three small town parishes in rural Pennsylvania. I asked about his pastoral challenges. The biggest: the challenges grandparents face parenting the grandchildren their own children are too messed up to raise.
Cultural instability compounds economic instability. White middle class Americans feel themselves more and more vulnerable. Fifty years ago, to be middle class was to be normal. Now a person near the median in our society is on unstable ground. A few of his friends are going up. More and more are going down. This sense of a dissolving form of life is as much a source of today’s middle class anxiety as stagnant household incomes.
Cultural attacks on middle class people were always part of the postwar scene. Beats denounced them as uptight. Their children rebelled in the Sixties. Intellectuals turned their noses up to middlebrow, midcult pieties. But the politicians knew where the votes were, and they ran as mom-and-apple-pie defenders of the middle class.
That’s no longer true. The leadership cadres of both parties aren’t just unresponsive to this anxiety, they add to it.
Does the intelligentsia of the Democratic Party let a moment pass without reminding us of the demographic eclipse of white middle class voters? Sometimes, they’re described as racists, or derided as dull suburbanites who lack the élan of the new urban “creative class.” The message: White middle class Americans aren’t just irrelevant to America’s political future, they’re in the way.
Conservatives are no less harsh. Editorials ominously predict that the “innovators” are about to be overwhelmed by a locust blight of “takers.” Remember the inspirational video for the convention that nominated Romney? It featured small businesses that made things, culminating in a group shot of the employees with the owner’s voice saying, “I built that.” The message: If it weren’t for successful people like us, middle class people like you would be doomed, so be properly thankful.
Is it any surprise that white middle class voters are in rebellion? To a greater or lesser extent, Democratic and Republican party establishments appeal to the interests of these voters, promising to protect them (Democrats) or spur growth that will renew economic opportunity (Republicans). But these appeals miss the point. These voters do not want to be treated as inert objects under the sway of larger demographic or economic forces. They want to be reassured that they can renew their political agency. They want someone to appeal to their freedom, not their interests.
This is precisely what Trump and Sanders offer. Trump speaks about restoring American greatness, rhetorical gestures the represent his own version of Obama’s vague 2008 slogan, “Yes we can.” We can mock both as empty. But in today’s political climate, when establishment politicians fix on trying to find the right policies to appeal to interests, disempowered voters (or perhaps more accurately, voters who feel disempowered) latch on to this promise. They want to believe that they can be active agents in building a better future.
Sanders also appeals to the capacity of middle class voters to exercise their political freedom, calling for them to join him in fundamentally remaking our political economy: If we really want to, we can overthrow the moral limitations of capitalism and usher in a more just future. We can dismiss his socialism as an unworkable throwback, but he’s doing something our political establishment can’t or won’t, which is to inspire the political imaginations of middle class voters.
I’m not sure where this populist revolt will lead. Big blocks of voters require leaders. That’s especially true for white middle class voters. They have high expectation born of many decades when both parties put forward national candidates carefully groomed to speak to their concerns and inspire them to action: Stop Communism! Go to the Moon! Overcome Racism! Win the Cold War! That’s not happening now. It probably stopped happening two decades ago.
Thus Trump and Sanders. They may well win in Iowa and New Hampshire.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.