Are you in the middle class, upper middle class or among the richest top 1 percent?
Unbelievably, in 2004 when Al Gore dismissed George W. Bush’s plan for tax cuts as a benefit for the richest 1 percent, polls showed that 19 percent of Americans believed they were in that top 1 percent, and another 21 percent thought they would be there in the next 10 years.
Even at the height of the Depression, when a similar poll was taken, most people placed themselves in an economic status much higher than they actually were in.
So what’s the meaning of this seemingly hard-core self-delusion? According to Michael Zweig, professor of economics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the persistence of the American public in identifying with the wealthy means those of us in the progressive movement should stop pitting rich against poor when communicating with the rest of the world because
when we attack “the rich” too many people think we are attacking them and their future.
The titles of Zweig’s two recent books, What’s Class Got to Do with It: American Society in the Twenty-First Century and The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, indicate the framework he thinks should replace the rich-poor dichotomy: Class—working, middle, ruling and capitalist. Zweig, an AFT member and longtime union activist, spoke yesterday here at the AFL-CIO, where he elaborated on why class is an essential starting point for more effective politics to turn back the right-wing tide that has swept across the United States with growing power for nearly 40 years.
The real source of the political and economic misdirection in this country is the increasingly unbridled power of the capitalist class and their arrogant pursuit of profit for the few at the expense of the vast majority of Americans and peoples of the world. This should be the target of our politics. Being rich is not the key point….The people Dick Cheney met with in early 2001 to set energy policy were rich, but much more to the point they were captains of industry, senior executives of U.S. energy corporations.
Without acknowledging class, Zweig notes:
We’re facing a one-sided class war.
When I’m talking about class, I’m talking about power.
Zweig also is director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life, which seeks to develop an understanding of class like we have an understanding of race and gender and to add to the progressive discussion of race and gender in a way that expands those boundaries.
Class differences now divide ethnic and racial populations in ever more important ways. Although blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately found more often in the working class and less often in the middle and capitalist classes, compared with their shares of the labor force (and in lower-paying jobs in all classes compared with whites), there are nevertheless millions of black and Hispanic professionals, managers, and small business owners, and growing numbers in the corporate elite as well. Each class is divided by race and ethnicity; each race and ethnic group is divided by class.
When the Bush administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina prompted the media to run headlines about poverty, poverty became equated with African Americans. But as Zweig points out, plenty of white workers in that area are impoverished as well. Not until we address class can we address racism in New Orleans because without class as a framework, we will continue to see black people as poor and white people as having nothing to do with it. A class framework does not substitute for race or gender, but interacts with it.
Class, says Zweig, has come out of the closet in recent years. While issues were not discussed in terms of class eight or 10 years ago, now we see such books as Jeff Faux’s The Global Class War and The New York Times 2005 series on class. Earlier this year, Allan Ornstein published Class Counts: Education, Inequality, and the Shrinking Middle Class, from which he wrote:
In the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the working- and middle-class populace, that is the vast majority of Americans, need and deserve security, safety nets and social/health programs that help provide a descent way of life. We just seem unable to make an issue out of growing inequality, or the decimation of the middle class, fearing that it sounds un-American or like class warfare. It is puzzling why the rich should not be asked to bear their full share of government burdens, especially now with the government in deep debt.
Zweig also challenges the notion that political appeals to the middle class are appropriate for building winning messages because he says it’s uncertain we really identify ourselves.
It is true that large majorities say they are in the middle class when the choices given are “upper, middle, lower” or “rich, middle, poor.” But when “working class” is given as a choice, 45 percent to 55 percent of Americans put themselves in the working class.
America’s founders saw power as the opposite of liberty. While they weren’t opposed to creating a free market society, they were determined to limit unbridled power, which they identified as a key source of corruption. After all, the Kennedys are wealthy. So is John Edwards who, contrary to reactionary propaganda, isn’t hypocritical because of his wealth—his secure foundation gives him a sound financial footing to wage war on the Two Americas. The founders were on to something: Wealth in and of itself isn’t the issue. It’s what you do with it.