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The Slow Death of the Middle Class

Conservatives are working hard to dismantle almost every policy that protects average American workers. Air America host Thom Hartmann speaks up about how we can fight back.
 
 
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In his new book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class, Air America host Thom Hartmann provides an exhaustive argument that America's backbone and lifeblood -- its middle class -- is vanishing. (Or being cast out, set aside, and methodically destroyed, depending on your perspective.)

Hartmann blends current affairs with a vital crash course in history to demonstrate the ways in which -- under 25 years of right-wing wonkery -- working people, once treasured as the foundation of our economy, are now neglected to the point of extinction. Through concrete examples of laws passed, unions busted and programs dismantled, Hartmann reminds us how, since Reagan's 1980 ascension to the throne, conservative policiticans have done little except "conserve" their own wealth- and power-grubbing interests.

But it wasn't always like this, as Hartmann makes sure we remember. With the creation of post-Depression initiatives which benefited everyone, such as Social Security, antitrust laws and the minimum wage, America's most forward-thinking politicians helped revitalize the economy and make the country a more unified whole.

Why can't it be like that again? In an AlterNet telephone interview, Hartmann explains that it can -- but that it will only happen when more Americans get out and elect the few politicians who actually give a damn about the rest of us.

Laura Barcella: What are the three biggest hurdles currently affecting the middle class?

Thom Hartmann: Free market ideology; a variety of practices to drive down the cost of labor -- from destruction of the union movement to encouragement of immigration, both legal and illegal; and the promotion of the idea that democratic institutions are an aberration, that vast wealth is the natural order of things in the human and animal kingdoms.

LB: In Screwed, you write about the "Golden Age" of the middle class. Can you remind us of what a healthy middle class looks like?

TH: Teddy Roosevelt was the first in the modern era to identify what it would mean to [have a] middle class in a society that wasn't propped up by slavery and land taken from the Native Americans (which was largely responsible for the first middle class, in the 1700s).

The Republican Roosevelt realized that without government intervention clearly defining the rules of [business] to serve society as well as capitalism, there couldn't be a middle class.

[Roosevelt] suggested that the hallmarks of a "living wage" (he was the first person to use that phrase), were that with an honest week's work, a single family's wage-earner would be able to support their family, raise their children, provide education for those children -- including college, care for all their health needs -- even in times of sickness (quoting Roosevelt), take an annual vacation, and set enough aside that retirement and old age would be comfortable and secure.

Franklin Roosevelt set about putting that vision into place 30 years later with the Wagner Act in 1935, which established the right to unionization, and the Social Security Act providing a safety net for old age (and for people incapable of working due to 'circumstances of birth'). ... All of this led to the strongest middle class this nation has ever seen, in the '50s, '60s, '70s and the beginning of the '80s.

LB: And then what happened?

TH: Then in the 1960s and '70s, a group of worried ideologues saw the social upheavals of that era -- women demanding equal pay and reproductive rights, African-Americans demanding voting rights, working people demanding [fair wages], activists demanding a clean environment -- and the ideologues thought what they were seeing were symptoms of society melting down.

It confirmed their fear, which echoed a fear of the early founders (John Adams and Alexander Hamilton), that too much democracy would lead to social anarchy. A ruling elite operating under the guise of democracy was the most stable form of government, and if we had a strong middle class like we had in the '60s and '70s, people had too much time on their hands and too little fear. ...

These folks (who comprised Ayn Rand's objectivists, libertarianists, and old-line segregationist conservatives who agreed with Edmund Burke that in order to be stable, society must have "classes and orders") set out to restore a more hierarchical, more "stable" America. They didn't believe in democracy; they thought they were doing the right thing. ...

Special interest groups, like the NRA, joined forces to roll back the healthy middle class and the dissent associated with it, and replaced it with a Dickensian reproduction of Victorian-era society, where there's a small powerful ruling class, a small mercantilist middle class, and a large class of working poor who are sufficiently afraid of losing what little they have that they aren't going to engage in social or workplace protest.

LB: So when, in your opinion, did the middle class officially begin to start falling apart?

TH: Nixon's Southern Strategy brought the racists into the fold in 1972, and George Bush's courting of the Christian right brought the fundamentalists into the fold.

But Ronald Reagan officially launched the [war on working people]. He kicked it off with busting PATCO. We are now 26 years into that war, and papers no longer have labor sections -- they only have business sections, and most workers no longer have pensions.

We've gone from 25 percent of the work force being unionized -- when Reagan came into office -- to about eight percent of the private work force being unionized. The small sliver that's still unionized is under aggressive attack, and they represent the last bastion of the classic middle class.

The conservatives can't allow them to survive; [unions] bring democracy into the workplace, so they represent a threat to conservative wealth and power. ... The only thing that will allow unionization to happen is force of law; to elect public officials who are willing to enforce the Wagner Act and repeal the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This requires [politicians] who represent the will and needs of the middle class, instead of the wealthy, powerful gentry.

LB: Who are a few of the politicians you feel are up to this task?

TH: Bernie Sanders. Byron Dorgan. Peter DeFazio. There's not a shortage of good people in politics; they are just not a majority.These aren't radical positions, they are ones that Eisenhower held. And there are good, honest Republicans like Kevin Phillips and Paul Craig Roberts out there, pointing out [the ways the GOP has been corrupted], but their voices are a distinct minority.

LB: Talk a little about George W. Bush, and how his politics and presidency have affected the plight of the middle class.

TH: G.W. Bush is the most toxic president we've had against working people in the U.S. since [William] McKinley. Bush absolutely believes in a ruling elite -- into which he was born, by the way -- and serfdom. It wasn't a slip at that Town Hall meeting a few months ago, when he asked a woman what she did and she said she worked three jobs, and he patted her on the head and said, "Isn't that great? That's an all-American story."

Her working three jobs means she won't be out in the street demanding economic, reproductive or social rights -- which is exactly the way he would like it.

LB: And what about the war's effect on working people?

TH: The war in Iraq's impact on the middle class has been extremely corrosive. I wouldn't [even] call it a "war;" I'd call it a successful invasion that took only a few months, and the subsequent occupation. All illegal, by the way.

The occupation of Iraq has been financed by borrowing money in our names -- and in the names of our children and grandchildren -- from China, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and a few very wealthy families, like the Bushes. Those creditors will be beneficiaries of the war, and the middle class will pay the bill eventually, just like the economic difficulties Jimmy Carter suffered after the bill was due for Vietnam. The next generation will have to confront some very difficult times as a result of Bush's $9 trillion debt.

This year, over $300 billion of the federal budget is interest on a debt that Reagan ran up in order to make the economy look good, on borrowed money, to get himself reelected. That's enough money to provide full scholarships to public universities for over 15 million students.

LB: Talk a bit about the impact of the minimum wage.

TH: The minimum wage can be thought of in two ways. One, it provides a floor for workers, and should be set at a level matching Teddy Roosevelt's' criteria which we discussed earlier. We are a wealthy-enough country that if you play by the rules and work hard, you should be able to have a decent life.

The other thing the minimum wage does is provides a warning flag [about] the fiscal health of working Americans. In that regard, the fact that the minimum wage is the lowest it's been since the1940s, when the middle class was just emerging, tells us that conservatives have been successful in producing a large, terrified class of working poor, who can be easily manipulated and who don't have enough time to be politically active.

LB: What can people do to help stop the death of the middle class?

TH: The thing so few people get about why the middle class is vanishing is that it's not just [driven by] greedy industrialists. It's not just about money. In fact, it's not even half about money. It's about power. It's about reestablishing the world Dickens described in "A Christmas Carol," where Bob Cratchit had to beg for a lump of coal and health care for his child. Conservatives look at that time in that world and they see a time that was comfortable, stable and predictable. Those are higher values, to them, than freedom and egalitarianism and social justice.

When America gets it that these are ideological issues -- not just economic -- then it will translate into the political realm, and something might be done about it.

LB: But how can more Americans "get it"?

TH: In my book, I reproduce a 1936 speech by Franklin Roosevelt about this issue -- how royalists were trying to seize control, how allegiance to democracy requires the overthrow of such corporate power.

Ever since the '80s, since Reagan conservatives started [insisting] that communism was being taught in school civics classes, we have had a generation of people who came of age in the '90s who have no recollection of what was conventional wisdom in 1936: that there is an economic and class war going on. As Warren Buffet said, "Of course there's a class war, and my class is winning."

We need to reawaken people under 30 and 40, to remember what the ideals of this country traditionally have been, and how healthy that is for the world -- not just the U.S. [We need to] keep telling stories of how it was in the old days. The conservatives are doing everything they can to strip American history.

Laura Barcella is an associate editor at AlterNet.