• U.S.

Double-Talk: About Class

6 minute read
Barbara Ehrenreich

With all the attention to Bill Clinton’s sex life, few have noticed a far more serious transgression on the part of the candidates. They are tossing around the word class, as in middle class, in total defiance of the venerable cliche: class is America’s “dirty little secret,” anything really dirty being, in our culture, not exactly a secret. But here they are, blithely breaking our 200-year-old taboo on the mention of class and using “middle class” as a modifier for dozens of terms like tax cuts, values and even revolution.

Perhaps they mean no harm. After all, if they really wanted to run roughshod over convention, they might have gone for the more muscular “working class” or even dusted off the dread “proletariat.” Middle class is the wimpiest term in the lexicon of social taxonomy, meaning little more than not rich, not poor. Ask what class we’re in, and we all shrug modestly and say, “Middle, you know, like everyone else.”

Or perhaps the politicians are speaking in code. Codes have long been a part of the etiquette of political discourse: “welfare” for African Americans, “fairness” for tax the rich, “family values” for oat-based cereals and heterosexuality. When those on the political right first test-ran middle class as a conservative poster child, all they really seemed to mean by it was “normal,” a code for white and not poor — anyone else being a member of the supposedly profligate underclass that was dragging our nation down. Even when uttered by Democrats, middle class often sounds like a mealymouthed way of saying, “Us, and not them,” where them includes poor people, snake handlers and those with pierced tongues.

But surely our candidates are aware of the risks involved in breaking our 200 years of silence on the subject of class. For the first century or so, the whole concept of class was derided as something foreign and decadent, along the same lines as male cologne, and inappropriate to a nation with an open frontier. Mention of the word could get you strung up or shunned by the politically correct. Later, in the 1950s, use of the word class joined vegetarianism and folk dancing as one of many telltale signs of communist leanings. Hence Senator Philip Gramm’s recent denunciation of the Democrats as latter-day communists, “trying to create the same class struggle that failed in the Soviet Union.”

For most of us far less ideological folks, mention of class seems, well, borderline rude. We may not be class-conscious, but we’re plenty status- conscious and capable of deconstructing the subtle difference between, say, Bud Light and Chardonnay or polyester and natural fiber. But where a European might see actual social classes, we tend to see only winners and losers, which is why any serious talk of class always has the sting of that ancient zinger: If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

So the candidates had better have a very good reason for raising a topic that is so vulgar, upsetting and unpatriotic. I suggest that if challenged, they fall back on the defense already employed by various well-heeled felons that “the ’80s made me do it.” It was in the ’80s, after all, that the rich got richer, and the poor took to camping out on concrete. Class became harder to ignore than those block-long stretch limos that scatter the common folk as they cruise down the streets.

And in the ’80s a funny thing happened to the middle class, meaning, roughly, those who inhabit the middle of the income-distribution curve. If a middle-class life-style is defined by home ownership, vacations in Orlando and college for the kids, then a middle-size income was shrinking to the level of an inadequate pittance. While the price of housing and tuition went shooting through the roof, the median household income remained stuck where it has been ever since the late ’70s, at about $30,000 a year. The curious result being that if you want to be middle class in the old-fashioned suburban sense, you need to be pretty near rich.

Our candidates can be forgiven, then, for breaking the taboo on the mention of class. But now that they’ve gone this far, why not take the rest of the marbles out of their mouths and refrain from using middle class as a muffled code meaning not poor? After all, the middle class has achieved celebrity status on account of its relative poverty, so those who live in absolute poverty should be at least as deserving of a politician’s fleeting attention. A mortgage may be a crippling burden, but it beats having no home at all.

Besides, hardly anyone believes the old Reagan-era canard that it’s the poor who are dragging us down. When a TIME/Yankelovich Clancy Shulman poll asked which groups are getting “too much” and “too little” from the Federal Government, 79% said the lower class, home of the fabled deadbeats and welfare cheats, is getting too little, and a startling 75% blamed the upper class for hogging more than its share. Out of deference to popular sentiment then, the candidates ought to start addressing themselves in a more ecumenical fashion, to “the poor and the middle class.”

Ah, but think what would happen if we cast that one last taboo aside and acknowledged that the real political equation might be the rich vs. the rest of us! George Bush would no doubt continue to complain, in ever shriller tones, about the dangers of “envy and divisiveness.” Pat Buchanan, Clinton and other faux men of the people would have to admit that their assets place them securely within the Porsche-driving class. And the rest of us, especially in the vague middle strata, would have to toss out our lottery tickets and knuckle down for the struggle for national health care and a few other measures to redistribute the wealth.

But this is what comes of breaking taboos. Where are you, Ms. Flowers? Let’s go back to sex.

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