June 16, 2005

Class... Dismissed?

What do we mean when we say "middle class"? Former Rep. Martin Frost had an editorial yesterday titled "Democrats Must Reconnect With Middle Class." He cites a new survey showing that, among white voters making between $30,000 to $75,000 a year, some 45 percent of the vote, Bush beat Kerry by 22 points. Now there are a lot of ways to slice those numbers up, granted—one could start by noting that this is such a broad category that it more or less defeats analysis; of course the Democrats need to do better among a set of people making up 45 percent of the vote... really, now—but my question for now is this: are income levels useful for defining "middle class"?

One way to define class—and this is hardly an original thought—is to look not at income but at power. Power in the workplace. Power in the world. The working class, from this point of view, can be defined as those who do their jobs under strict supervision, have little control over what they do or how fast they do it, and have no power over anyone else. Notice I picked this definition somewhat deliberately; these are precisely the sorts of people who, under labor law, can join a union. Obviously the definition's not hard and fast. I'm in a union, after all, because at work I technically get no input into the Mother Jones budget, and have precisely zero authority over any other employee. So that's the law. In practice, though, I do have the ability to hire, promote, and fire interns, I get to work at my own pace, and have wide discretion over what projects I want to pursue. So I'd put myself in the middle class, even if I make far less, income-wise, than many who would be considered working class. Intuitively, this classification makes far more sense than calling me "working class" and, say, a well-paid, unionized electrician "middle class."

So that's the working class. According to economist Michael Zweig, in his book The Working Class Majority, these workers make up some 62 percent of the labor force. This is your "typical" American right here. Way up at the other end of the spectrum are the owners and capitalists and rulers. They run boards of directors, control budgets, make economic decisions that affect thousands of workers, that sort of thing. Again, citing Zweig, this is about 2 percent of the labor force. (Meanwhile, the owners and capitalists with real power, serious national and political power, probably number no more than a couple thousand.)

In the middle is, well, the middle class. That includes everyone, I think, from small business owners to the foreman on the floor to doctors, corporate attorneys, senior managers, accountants. These are the folks with some significant amount of power and authority, are generally able to socialize with each other, but are still "in the middle"—they're not the ones making the final decisions. (Even many small business owners lack the sort of authority and autonomy that large business owners and CEOs and COOs and what have you can wield.) Doing the math, this is about 36 percent of the labor force, and can stretch from workers making $25,000 or less to $300,000 or more.

So that's another way to look at class, a very Marxist one, as I said, and one that isn't necessarily based on income levels. Looking at "why class matters" is far beyond the scope of a single post, but here's a question: From a political or policy standpoint, does this distinction even make a difference? Yes, I think so, but it often depends. Some issues, like the unaffordability of health care, or Medicaid cuts, are going to concern low-income voters more than middle- and high-income voters, regardless of class. (Although health care costs are, obviously, fast becoming a concern of middle-income voters too.) Same with welfare, or predatory lending, or public transportation.

On the other hand, labor issues are going to concern working class voters of all income levels. Unions, after all, aren't just about getting better pay and benefits. They're also about gaining some semblance of autonomy and respect for workers: that's why unions devote so much energy fighting for various workplace rules and grievance procedures and standards for discipline and seniority; so that workers aren't treated as arbitrary and expendable "labor inputs." Of course, not everyone in the working class sees this as important; plenty of workers would prefer to just get along with management rather than act as a countervailing force. (Plenty of workers think they'll launch out of the "working class" someday.) But unionization is a working class concern.

So, too, are things like job instability. My guess is that many "middle class" workers, regardless of income, are more sanguine about fluctuations in the job market, because they're far more optimistic about their upward mobility. On a personal level, for instance, outsourcing worries me far, far less than it might someone from the "working class" making far more than me, if only because he has less control over his work; in important ways he's, well, at the mercy of capitalists. That's an important and likely a real divide between the middle and working classes, although I think it needs to be developed a bit more. But those infamous polls that show that 40 percent of Americans either believe they're in the top 1 percent of the income bracket or will be soon? I think we've found them. And I haven't even said anything about those much-vaunted "social issues," which could very likely intersect with class divides in important ways. Education is a major factor too.

At any rate, damned if I know what the Democrats need to do to win elections. But I do know that dividing up voter blocs by income level isn't the only way to look at the world, and it may be unduly constraining or misleading. Class, in the sense used here, still matters.
-- Brad Plumer 4:21 AM || ||