Andrea Batista Schlesinger

Meet the Educators Fighting to Restore a Sense of Civic Duty in School Kids

The following is an excerpt from The Death of "Why?": The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy by Andrea Batista Schlesinger. Copyright 2009 Andrea Batista Schlesinger. Reprinted with permission by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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Members of Congress Graded on Middle Class Accountability

If the middle class could give your Congressmember a grade, what would it be? Today, DMI releases grades for every senator and representative, evaluating their votes on key legislation that affects the current and aspiring middle class.

2007 began as a year of great promise. Congress was flooded with dozens of new members, many elected with a pledge to address the middle-class squeeze and help more working people attain a middle-class standard of living. Important legislation--from expanding children's health coverage to bringing down the cost of college loans--was introduced and brought to a vote. But, faced with Senate filibusters and a recalcitrant President, many bills died or were passed in watered-down form. Still, the bills that did become law represent concrete gains for current and aspiring middle-class Americans, including a higher minimum wage, expanded Pell Grants, a freeze on middle class tax hikes and lower costs to fuel cars. 2007 Congressional Scorecard takes a closer look at the decisions made by Congress, from the one-year freeze to prevent the Alternative Minimum Tax from hitting middle-class families to the filibuster that originally torpedoed a minimum wage increase (later passed) and the trade bill that put the interests of multinational corporations and large investors before the concerns of middle-class Americans.

After examining 13 bills in detail, the 2007 Congressional Scorecard assigns a grade to each Member of Congress based on his or her support for the middle class. On the whole, Congress squeaked by with a passing grade in 2007, but there is considerable room for improvement. Just 62% of Representatives and 56% of Senators received a C or better. While this middle-class record is far better than the first term of the 109th Congress, the millions of Americans striving to attain--or hold onto--a middle-class standard of living deserve more from their elected representatives.

The Middle-Class Squeeze

According to the latest argument offered by the political right, we're all doing splendidly -- but we just don't realize it. Americans would be celebrating if only Iraq weren't around to distract people, the White House tells us. Their theory, as articulated by Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin: "The economy is firing on all cylinders, the growth is incredible, and it's completely overshadowed by Iraq."

Unfortunately, the reality is that most Americans aren't distracted by Iraq, but instead by their own checkbooks. They are increasingly afraid that the basic elements of the American dream are outside of their grasp. And if progressives are going to hold the governing party accountable for this loss (instead of allowing them to hide behind the curtain of foreign policy fears), we will have to turn their attention to the group of Americans whose insecurity is the best illustration of the failure of this administration's economic policy: the middle class.

When we start looking at the financial pressures on middle-class families, it's easy to see why the President's approval ratings are down on economic leadership. Though employment is on the increase, so are college tuition, property taxes, gas, milk and oil prices, the cost of health insurance and childcare, credit card debt and bankruptcy filings. Owning your own home and a station wagon, knowing you could send your kids to college, feeling secure about a retirement that awaited you; that's what it used to mean to be middle class in America. Today, it's a different story. And when the American dream doesn't work for the middle class, it also denies poor and low-income Americans access to the ladder of economic mobility. This new reality is both an obligation and an opportunity for progressives -- if we dare to step out of our comfort zone.

Progressives have long been allergic to talking about the middle class. The middle class can fend for themselves, they say. Our duty is to those who are truly struggling. The right, meanwhile, uses the middle class when talking about their shared "values" but neglects them when differences about economic policy put them behind the eight-ball. Progressives must reject both of these assumptions. If progressives are going to reclaim the debate about social and economic policy -- and elect leaders who will pass legislation that brings middle-class families more financial stability and that restores economic mobility -- we will have to reach out to the middle class, not by matching the right's "feel-good" rhetoric word for word, but by getting serious about addressing the policies that have squeezed these families so tightly in the first place.

While this process is a long-term one that will require the kind of patience and discipline that conservatives have mastered when it comes to shifting frameworks about policy, here are some suggested first steps for progressives trying to figure out how to talk about the middle class:

1. It's okay to talk about the middle class. Really. "How can you talk about the middle class when they've got it pretty good?" I've been asked many times. Here's the truth about how good the middle class has it:

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