Outlines of a Reading Project on Class

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the class divide in America — a topic that has been on my mind for several years, but has acquired a new significance in the Trump Era. Probably all this research will eventually result in a long article where I try to find some deeper insight, but in the meantime I’ll just summarize what I’ve been reading, in case you want to read along with me.

A great place to start is “The 9.9% is the New American Aristocracy” by Matthew Stewart in The Atlantic. Wealth, as many authors have shown, is increasingly accumulating in the top tenth of a percent. But beneath that layer of plutocrats is the rest of the top 10%, which mostly consists of educated professionals with a decent amount of economic security, who have pleasant homes in safe neighborhoods with good schools, read magazines like The Atlantic, and do physical labor only to the extent they want to. (I wasn’t born into this class, but that’s where I am now. I suspect most — but not all — of my readers are 9.9-percenters also.)

Collectively, we control more than half of American’s wealth, a percentage that has held fairly steady for decades. The gains of the top .1% mostly haven’t come from us, but at the expense of the bottom 90%. Stewart says:

By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below. But we do have a blind spot, and it is located right in the center of the mirror: We seem to be the last to notice just how rapidly we’ve morphed, or what we’ve morphed into.

What we’ve morphed into is a hereditary aristocracy; it’s increasingly hard for people not born into this class to join. On its surface, the system looks like a meritocracy, but we’ve gamed it. Winning the race requires the kind of preparation that only aristocratic kids are in a position to get. Like Jane Austen’s aristocrats, we have a strong tendency to intermarry, closing off that point of entry. We also feel very little guilt about leaving the classes below us in the dust: In the Game of Life, we tell ourselves, they just didn’t measure up. (Chris Hayes made a similar point several years ago in The Twilight of the Elites.)

The middle-working class — let’s leave the boundaries of that vague for now — consists of people who didn’t make it into the aristocracy, but have what Joan Williams in her book White Working Class calls “settled lives”: They aren’t college educated, but they are consistently employed and have stable homes with (mostly) solid families. They typically have jobs rather than careers, and they get their identities from family and community (often a church community) rather than from their professions. (Even if you have lucrative lifelong employment as a plumber or electrician, it’s what you do, not who you are.)

Members of this class take a lot of pride in the disagreeable things they’ve had to do to stay out of poverty — the long hours of unrewarding work, the desires they’ve had to suppress, the dreams they’ve had to defer, etc. — and they picture poor people as lacking the same moral stamina. (That’s why it aggravates them when government programs let the undeserving poor enjoy some of the same rewards they take pride in earning. Liberals, they feel, are trying to erode the significance of their moral achievement.) They have different cultural values than the aristocrats and are annoyed by our belief that they tried to be us, but just failed. They don’t actually want to be us, but they envy our generational stability, because (as the kinds of jobs that underwrite settled lives go away) they see no guarantees that their children won’t be poor.

They also resent the hell out of us, much more than they resent the .1%. The plutocrats are like distant kings, but working-class folks have to deal with aristocrats every day. We’re their bosses and the doctors who talk down to them. We’re their hard-to-please clients, the consultants who come in to tell them that they’re doing it all wrong, and the experts who observe and interview them in hopes of replacing them with machines. We’re the talking heads on TV who use big words and insist that they’d agree with us if only they had read enough books to know what they’re talking about.

Trump made it to the White House by playing on that resentment. (Historically, the 9.9% has been split between the parties or even leaned Republican. But many never-Trump conservatives are 9.9 percenters, and congressional seats in professional-class suburbs are viewed by Democrats as pick-up opportunities.) Since taking office he has done virtually nothing to help the working class — not even the white working class. But he remains popular among them because he gives voice to their resentment of the 9.9%.

Williams’ point is that we aristocrats should try harder to understand and show respect to the working class, which is true as far as it goes. But The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman points out a disagreeable truth: Professional-class liberals — or even just reality-based anti-Trump conservatives — are kidding themselves if they think respect is some kind of “magic key that Democrats can use to unlock the hearts of white people who vote Republican”. No matter how respectful a candidate or a set of policies might be, that message will never get through the filter of “an entire industry that’s devoted to convincing white people that liberal elitists look down on them.”

If you doubt this, I’d encourage you to tune in to Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio for a week. When you do, you’ll find that again and again you’re told stories of some excess of campus political correctness, some obscure liberal professor who said something offensive, some liberal celebrity who said something crude about rednecks or some Democratic politician who displayed a lack of knowledge of a conservative cultural marker. The message is pounded home over and over: They hate you and everything you stand for.

Essentially, conservative media is like the community gossip who constantly starts conversations with “Did you hear what so-and-so just said about you?” No matter how respectful the bulk of us may eventually learn to be, somebody somewhere is always going to be dissing working-class whites, and Fox News will make sure that they hear about it.

Even when that disrespect is absent, it is easily manufactured. Waldman points out how out-of-context quotes were used to skewer Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Everyone knows that Clinton thinks working-class Trump voters are “deplorable”, and Obama believes they are “clinging to guns and religion”.

Finally, the consequences of this class divide are discussed in Ganesh Sitaraman’s book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution. Unlike previous republics, the United States didn’t write the class struggle into its constitution: Rome, for example, balanced an aristocratic Senate against the veto-wielding Tribunes of the People. Britain separated the House of Commons from the House of Lords. America didn’t do anything like that.

Instead, the Founders counted on relative equality of wealth and the presence of a large middle class to maintain a balanced society. Those are the conditions our system of government is designed for, and at various key points in American history (the homestead era, the Progressive Era, the New Deal) the government made deliberate choices that preserved the middle class and prevented either plutocratic domination or a revolution of the dispossessed.

Now we’re in an era of increased concentration of wealth and power by the .1%. Now more than ever, if we’re going to preserve our system of government, we need the 9.9% and the working class to band together against the domination of the super-rich. But how is that going to happen?

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  • Kenneth  On May 28, 2018 at 9:43 am

    When you get around to your longer piece, I hope you won’t “leave the boundaries vague.” I can’t help feeling like these books are comparing, if not apples and oranges, Empire and Granny Smith (see what I did there? Ha! I kill me.). Mr. Google suggests that the top 10% has a net worth of $1.1 million and up, or annual income of $110,000 and up. (In the process of finding that, I located myself and was reminded that in spite of various insecurities, I’m still around the 70th percentile in income. Sobering.) The census bureau says 33% of the country has at least a bachelor’s degree. So that’s a lot of people in between Stewart’s aristocracy and Williams’s white working class.

    • airms  On May 28, 2018 at 12:59 pm

      Although I substantively agree with the dynamics you describe, the particular class divisions you mention seem odd to me. Perhaps it’s true that your readers come mainly from the top ten percent of wage earners, but it can’t be an accurate characterization to say that below this level, the typical person is neither college-educated nor a professional.

      To choose my own profession as an example, about one percent of the population are teachers. Very few of us fall into the top 10% of earners, but we are all educated professionals.

    • weeklysift  On May 28, 2018 at 1:31 pm

      Stewart’s 9.9% implies a numerical accuracy that isn’t there. Demographers talk about the top 10%, even though nothing special happens at the 90th percentile. Stewart is just adopting that separation and then pointing to “the rest of the top 10%” after the .1% is put in its own class. He’s using a numerical label to describe a qualitative difference.

      To me, it makes sense that there would be an ambiguous group between Stewart’s 9.9% and Williams’ working class. Teachers are sort of like doctors and sort of not. Farmers may have a sizeable net worth (because land values go up) and still identify culturally as working class.

      • Kim Cooper  On May 28, 2018 at 6:12 pm

        Like teachers, some people are culturally in that professional class but not financially. For instance, I have a Masters degree and was raised “upper middle class”, but my income didn’t go along with it — because I chose to work part time most of my 40 year career rather than make a lot of money. My time was more valuable to me. But, I never worked for minimum wage either. (at least, not after i was out of school ) There are always outliers. Generalizations are just generalizations.

  • reverendsax  On May 28, 2018 at 10:08 am

    You make many insightful observations here. I had read the Atlantic article. I have said before that I came from a working-class family and was shocked when my college freshman Western Civ prof said “Rich people are more free than the rest of us.” When I asked him to explain, he laughed at me. I got it. In the ’90’s I wondered about all the TV ads for luxury foreign cars. Who was buying them? Certainly not the majority of people seeing those ads. I researched it and 7.5% of Americans had income sufficient to buy those cars. Broadcasting those ads was effective not only in selling those cars but in making the rest of us aware of our lower incomes and status. Income and class are related in complex ways, but many of us not in the 9.9% or even the 20% live rather well on what we earn and have. Even in the middle we need to raise our consciousness about those below us and consider what kind of society we have created. Someone recently commented that we used to have a capitalist economy; now we have a capitalist society. I benefit from it but hate it.

    • Brent L Leatherman  On June 11, 2018 at 11:37 am

      You said something there that I ask myself every day “Who can afford those…..?” whatever ‘those’ might be. It hit me the other day where a condo in a building nears ours went up for sale for $750k. I know it’s a very nice condo, but has the money to shell out 3/4 of a million for, basically, an apartment?

  • reverendsax  On May 28, 2018 at 10:09 am

    I have no idea about how to unite the upper professional class and the less educated working class.

  • joeirvin  On May 28, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Doug, haven’t we had some form of “elite,” 9.9 percent, or whatever, since the beginning? Weren’t the Founders the economic elite of the day? Wasn’t racism written into the Constitution? Who built the mansions at Newport? Who celebrated the World’s Fairs held in Chicago, St. Louis and New York? We’ve always had some sort of celebrity culture (my great-grandfather was a big fan of Robert G. Ingersoll). We created a variety of myths to disguise our inequality and obviously there were periods when there was less of it, such as in the decade or so after World War II. There’s more to it than economics. I grew what today we’d call “white rural poor.” I remember Dad saying that if you have a bit of land at least you won’t starve to death. But extended family history and expectations made college almost a certainty for me and my siblings. And that was the case for many, ‘tho not all, of my neighbors. This issue is so complex I wish you luck in a final piece.

    • weeklysift  On May 28, 2018 at 1:19 pm

      Stewart and Hayes would argue that the boundary between working class and professional class has become more rigid in recent decades. Sitaraman spends quite a bit of space arguing against the entrenched-privilege view of the Constitution. Yes, the Founders were in the upper class of their day, he says, but they knew their vision only worked in a country that could maintain a middle class.

  • ccyager  On May 28, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    When I was reading Stewart’s article in The Atlantic, I kept wondering “Where do I fit in?” I’m a writer, of the “artist” class. I’m well educated, and I suppose if I’d wanted to, I could have chased after those six-figure jobs. More and more, I feel like I am outside of American society and looking in. I don’t believe that I am alone, either. I wrote my first novel in response to Ronald Reagan’s presidency and what I saw as a shift toward wealthy elites in this country. It pains me that I wasn’t wrong. But I still wonder where I fit in whether it’s economically or socially. The GOP sure doesn’t care about artists.

  • donbi33  On May 28, 2018 at 4:42 pm

    I have problems with the concept of determining class by income, although the .1% is a clear group. Teachers, librarians, social workers do professional work but have “working class” incomes. I have other examples.

    Retired People. My partner and I have incomes principally from Social Security, plus some part-time work income. Our total is about 40% of the metro medium. My partner has a Master’s degree and professional certification, I have substantial graduate hours. We read Time, Wired, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic plus several professional publications and blogs, and have a running problem with inadequate bookshelf space. But we’re lower class?

    Hypothetical Jesuit Priest. PhD from, say Georgetown, author of several published books, member of a couple of Vatican consults. In the monastery he has no living expenses, so his cash income is $25 – 30,000. Another lower class.

    A grade-school dropout, pumped septic tanks before he won the lottery, income $275,000. Definitely upper middle-class and 9.9 percent.

    I suspect that retirees may be a fertile resource for Democrats. iI we convince them that Democrats will work to solve the problems we’re facing, both personal and governmental, and the Republicans are working to exacerbate them by cutting funds, we may overcome their natural conservatism enough to get their votes.

  • David Wadleigh  On May 28, 2018 at 6:32 pm

    The memory of my grandmother, one of the “lace curtain Irish” who had been to “Finishing School” and was therefore of elevated taste and status in her own mind, and of other characters I know, causes me to realize that people are mentally in the class they think they are in, not in the class they are actually in. Some honestly feel they are of a higher class than they are, and are just delayed in getting there. Some honestly feel they are below the class they are really in, feeling poor and hard done by all their lives. Those who believe in the power of the mind to create the reality you imagine might also notice that people tend to achieve their expectations, not always fully, but they tend to. All of this, the article, the political climate, and my own noticing that peoples perceptions of their class govern their behavior more than their actual class does, are fertile areas to think about and generate new thoughts. I tend to love Douglas Mulder’s articles for that reason, most of them give me lots to think about for the next week or two. Doug Mulder, don’t let it go to your head but you are one of the most influential people in my life.


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