America’s self-image as a middle-class nation is so deeply ingrained in the country’s politics that we don’t often stop to think what, precisely, that means: whether it defines a concrete socioeconomic identity — a country where most people are neither very rich nor very poor — or an aspiration, the notion that if you “work hard and play by the rules,” as Clinton put it the first time she ran for president, you’re entitled to at least a modest prosperity. “Everyday Americans” was an attempt to acknowledge that the gap between these two ideas has widened to the point that ignoring it seems out of touch. Yet in its reversal, the campaign inadvertently revealed just how ill equipped American politics is for a post-middle-class nation — how deeply the way the country speaks of itself is tied up with these aspirations, even as more and more of its citizens come to see them as out of reach.There's much for contemplation here. We could consider, for instance, what happens when working hard and playing by the rules becomes a formula for privilege-shaming. Mr Homans is thinking about something else, namely the consequences of the peace dividend that too many pundits don't fully understand.
When people spoke of the middle class in the years immediately after World War II, they were typically talking about the group identified by the sociologist C.Wright Mills in his 1951 book, “White Collar”: the usually college-educated, deskbound employees of a newly technocratic, corporate economy. It was only a few years later that the definition was generally extended to include skilled blue-collar workers, who were now earning solid incomes on account of a booming postwar industrial economy and of unions that made sure their members got an equitable piece of it.Yes, that's The America That Worked(TM) and it came apart for a number of reasons, many of which involve the political economy of globalization and the workings of comparative advantages as what used to be advanced technology tasks became routine. But the last Democratic candidate who had the opportunity to propose that the government remove the racial barriers while preserving bourgeois conventions was Bill Clinton, in 1992.
The confluence of these two groups — a vision of insurance salesmen and machine operators, mowing the lawns of adjoining split-level ranches and talking about Sunday’s game — felt extraordinary even in its own time, seemingly incontrovertible proof that American capitalism worked.
“The one thing that it’s going to take to bring this country together is somebody’s got to come back to the so-called Reagan Democratic area and say: ‘Look, I’ll give you your values back. I’ll restore the economic leadership, I’ll help you build the middle class back.’ But you’ve got to say, ‘O.K., let’s do it with everybody in this country.’ ”For which he took stick from the identity-politics part of his coalition. Thus, it's been a bad quarter-century for bourgeois convention.
Thus the popularity of one Donald J. Trump.
The aspirational idea of the middle class spoke to the notion that even if Americans were in various stages of prosperity, they were all understood to be heading in the same general direction. But what happens when that’s no longer true? On one end of the “middle class” spectrum is a dream inexorably receding from view; on the other is a pair of socioeconomic blinders obscuring the harsher economic realities of those further down the scale. “The upper middle class are surprised by the rise of Trump,” [Brookings analyst Richard] Reeves told me. “The actual middle class are surprised we’re surprised.”That generalization is more likely true of the bicoastal upper-middle class types in their enclaves of smug, where residents enjoy the privileges of sneering at and sticking rhetorical fingers in the eyes of people who don't qualify as the gentry's mascots.