Rallying the nebulous, ever-changing “middle class”

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The middle class is the most powerful dream in American politics. Republicans bitterly fight over who can carry the middle-class banner. Democrats argue that they themselves are the true guardians of the middle class. In the coming presidential election, it’s taken almost for granted that the candidate that can speak to the desires and needs of the middle class will come away with the White House, but are these candidates chasing something real, or do we need to dig deeper? After all, nobody in the United States can agree on what the middle class actually is.

In fact, the only rule about the middle class seems to be that you are in it. Not long ago, the Wall Street Journal found out that 58 percent of Americans surveyed self-identified as middle-class. Even more surprisingly, this tendency was uniform across nearly all income brackets. People in most major income brackets tended to place themselves in the middle class — a plurality of people making under $30,000 a year said that $30,000 was middle-income, and a similar plurality of people making up to $100,000 a year said that they were middle-income too.

Clearly, the middle class is not a fixed entity, and it certainly is not a monolithic one. We can certainly agree that the notion of the “middle class” is part and parcel of the American Dream, but if we’re going to understand why the middle class means so much to Americans, we need better definitions for the aspirations that our politicians seek to channel.

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There are a few things that we can immediately connect to the middle class. 86 percent of Americans believe that you need to have a steady job; 66 percent insist upon health insurance; perhaps a bit surprisingly to this crowd, only 37 percent think that a college degree is a must.

Clearly it’s not all about being middle-income. Income is correlated with a steady job and health insurance, but there are still differences between the three, and most people would agree that there is more to being middle-class than just a job or access to healthcare.

To understand how we got to a definition of “middle class” that isn’t about being in the middle, we have to know where the “middle” came from. It’s not about a median, as many people say. The idea of the middle class came from the emergence of the modern economic system. As technologies and wealth trends shifted, this class filled in the gap between the aristocracy and the poor. But early middle classes were not the middle 50 percent in wealth; by any modern standard many members of the old middle class would have been firmly in the upper class.

In fact, this divergence between the median and the middle persists today: In China, even though the median Chinese is still firmly in the working class, people rightly praise the emergence of the Chinese middle class. Being in the middle class is primarily about individual security, not being richer than others. And while people do care about relative wealth, the middle-class goal fundamentally doesn’t imply being richer than other people, putting it squarely at odds with the notion of the median. If every American became middle class, the bottom 25 percent in wealth wouldn’t start calling themselves the modern proletariat.

What’s important to remember is that our confusion between the middle and the median is a sign of our strength, not our weakness. As Americans, we are incredibly fortunate that we can even have arguments about what the middle class is about.

In every country, the middle class represents an aspiration. What distinguishes America and other rich countries is that the middle class also represents a reality: Our spectacular economic expansion over the last two centuries has made a fairly high standard of living a realistic aspiration for most Americans. Large majorities of Americans believe that middle-class goals such as home ownership, staying out of debt, disposable income and healthcare are reasonable goals. The World Bank found out that despite the presence of billionaires such as Lakshmi Mittal, the top fifth percentile of income in India makes the same as the bottom fifth percentile in the United States.

Put simply, the middle class matters to American politics because it is a real thing. If it was just a statistical bin, it would have no relevance. Believing in the middle class is to a large extent an ongoing referendum on the vitality of the American Dream.

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It’s true that while so many people believe that they are in the middle class, they are only able to believe that because so many Americans actually do have the life security that being in the middle class implies. But its aspirational nature nevertheless speaks to other realities in American society. In lifting up the middle class, we also highlight people that do not, in fact, have that security.

I don’t mind that the middle class is such a nebulous idea in American politics; I see no point in condemning realistic aspirations. The goals of the middle class are good goals for us all, and when we appeal to the middle class, we do not appeal to the people in that class so much as we appeal to the mores and the ideals that the emergence of that class is supposed to embody. That is a thing to be cherished. Americans talk so much about the importance of the ideas that underpin our society; we should work to allow all Americans to channel these ideas, which are their natural inheritance.

Today, 40 percent of Americans self-identify as working class. When politicians talk about helping the middle class, they are also implicitly speaking to the people that aren’t. Every presidential candidate knows that — something to remember as we ease into 2016.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.