I honestly don’t know why people are acting incensed about presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s impolitic statement that his primary concern is the middle class. If you’ve watched the news, read popular blogs, and followed the public discourse (including input from the Occupy movement) in the last couple of years, it would be readily apparent to you that the middle class is pretty much everyone’s main interest. The number of voices calling for a return to a war against poverty are few. No, what the American public has become consumed with is the shrinking and even destruction of the Made-in-the-USA middle class. This, in most minds, is the great tragedy in our venture capitalist system. Romney just said it artlessly.
Underneath this popular worry is the reality that most people are and aspire to be middle class. I know, in America you’re supposed to want to strike it rich — and most people will say that’s what they want — but realistically, they know they won’t make it. They may hope to be wealthy, but they angle to be middle class…because that’s a decent life. You can be proud of being middle class. There’s a social respectability and cultural desirability there. That status still allows you to claim the honor of hard work without the shame of bounced checks. You get to enjoy some luxury without having to feel guilty that you are blowing enough money to send someone’s kid to college. It allows you to believe you still serve God and not Mammon.
Most people in the US self-identify as middle class (even if they can’t define it). They claim it, and even feel entitled to it. It’s an identity that can be worn with pride — unlike poverty, which is a sign of low moral character and ignorance according to our popular thinking. People who are poor are too dumb to get professional jobs, too lazy to do the work to get ahead, and too low-class to aspire to better. Under a social hierarchy defined by wealth, the poor are American untouchables. You have to violently shun that status at all costs.
This kind of thinking has not always been the norm in the United States though. In fact, it’s relatively new. Being poor — a life of honesty and debt and beans and patched clothes — that used to be something many Americans were proud of. There was a celebrated sub-culture around that. Will Rogers said: ”I can remember when a man could be considered respectable without belonging to a golf club.” This was a guy who was internationally known but embraced a simple persona fitting for his 10th grade education and rural background. In the 1940′s, Woody Guthrie recorded an album originally called Bed on the Floor, which was later changed to Poor Boy. His folk tunes were full of the difficulties of a life of want but joy in life with other poor folk and pride in manual labor. Meanwhile, American audiences made movie stars of Ma and Pa Kettle and their humorous, illiterate ways. And, don’t forget the Capra-corn: It’s a Wonderful Life celebrated the honor of poor virtue over corrupt wealth.
Later, in the 60′s, President Johnson declared war on poverty and Fannie Lou Hamer proclaimed: “We serve God by serving our fellow man; kids are suffering from malnutrition. People are going to the fields hungry. If you are a Christian, we are tired of being mistreated.” These attacks on poverty, however, were in no way condemnations of the poor. Rather, they were efforts to ameliorate the worst of the effects of hunger and deprivation on that segment of our population. Into the 70′s, popular culture still reflected families struggling with mortgages and living outside of excessive consumerism without treating these figures as lesser than or morally challenged.
Then the Gospel of Wealth came along, and being poor turned into a mark of those forgotten by God. Soon, the working class family on Roseanne would stand out as a strange anomaly on TV — even as it connected with millions of Americans whose lives so reflected that representation. I guess time and credit changes all things. Items that used to be luxuries or marks of a life of leisure are now commonplace. Even in working class neighborhoods of my city, I see women — and girls — with manicured hands and nicely highlighted hair. It seems like everyone has a smartphone and Coach purse. The old markers of class are so unreliable today. Americans try so hard to look the same now, and invariably, that sameness is middle class. Even the “ghetto fabulous” image is about affluence without actual wealth. No one wants to be the Joads or the Youngers and look their (lower) class. Most importantly, no one cared that the poor were getting poorer as the 21st century unfolded — until the middle class started joining them. Then, everyone got up-in-arms about wealth inequality. Whatever we do, we must, by all means, protect the God-bless-American middle class. It’s of the utmost importance to us all.
(Part III — There’ll Be No Pelters Here)
Here’s the thing that no one wants to say out loud about Occupiers taking to the streets: it is the unspoken threat that they will turn violent that makes people take careful note of them. That hint of danger from groups loose in our cities — it’s ominous; it’s disturbing; it invites resolution. The innate urge to protect oneself and one’s own immediately reacts to crowds of the vocal and disaffected on the prowl. You prepare for danger and move to eliminate any hint of a threat. Hence, you cannot ignore the protesters in the streets.
This sense is significantly amplified in a society built around the sanctity of property. In a place where it is considered completely legitimate to take a life to protect your flat screen TV or expensive jewelry, any disorder is immediately perceived as a threat to (sacred) stuff. Oh, my God! They broke a window. Can it get worse? They spray painted graffiti on a statue of Robert E. Lee. The indignities! You know, the world will end if anything with a value greater than $500.00 is destroyed. That’s felony protesting there. In the greatest turn of irony ever, conservative pundits online are in a tizzy because some protesters set fire to their own stuff. Where will it end if they don’t even have regard for their personal property?!
(As an aside, this is part of the reason that the government cracked down on Native American practices — the potlatch and fire ceremony — in the 19th century. As rejections of wealth and materialism, these acts conflicted with capitalism, and they, therefore, had to be stopped.)
Do you know who can least afford to have their property damaged? Psst, it’s not the one percenters. Burning your own shit is a powerful statement when you’re unemployed or living paycheck to paycheck. It’s economic immolation. Like the hunger strike, it’s an act of sacrifice that pricks the conscience. Of course, it’s actually more alarming to many that it’s a rejection of commercialism and materialism, otherwise known as the American way. There is perhaps no greater sin against consumerism.
So, these hooligans are on the loose, lacking any regard for the value of things — theirs or others’ — or the propriety of compliant behavior. They say they renounce violence, and some of them have even tried to prevent it. That threat, though, it haunts conservatives (even if they see that the system does unfairly favor the rich) — because they think the bell tolls for them. Really, it serves the movement best that this unspoken fear does linger. Truthfully, the monumental changes wrought by the Progressives in the early 20th century were driven by their fear of growing masses of disaffected poor people, who fought back and caused substantial unrest standing up for themselves. The law didn’t help them. They couldn’t turn to the government. So, they filled the streets, sometimes exercising their 2nd amendment right to bear arms. There was violence, and though we are removed in time from this now, the past lingers. We could return there again. Great recessions and depressions have driven Americans to violent acts many times before. It is possible — even with the domesticated citizenry of today — that this spirit reawaken and we experience a return to the way it was. The regulatory state and welfare society diffused unrest in the past, but it fails us today.
It could be that the peace of the post-World War II age was an anomaly and we have passed that historical moment. Perhaps we are now at a turning point, transitioning to a new paradigm. At this juncture, we do not know. There lies the incentive for the establishment to do as it did in the 20th century: institute reforms that ameliorate the worst of the effects of systemic inequities on the middle and working classes. The people were not in the street when the disparities were not so great. The wealthy elite has forgotten past lessons and gotten too greedy. It needs to return (at least some) power to the people to preserve the system. Otherwise, it may be that restraint gives way as the squeeze continues. Desperation fuels violence – and revolution. Perhaps, it will come to that.