Democrats (Foolishly) Reinvent Middle Class

TODD GITLIN and RUTH ROSEN

January 12, 1992|By TODD GITLIN and RUTH ROSEN

To hear Democratic candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Kerrey go on about The Middle Class, you'd think every collar in the country was white. This is not only factually misleading, it's also the stuff of shortsighted politics.

True, large majorities of Americans, when pressed by pollsters to label themselves, do proclaim themselves members of the vast middle, as if there were no one else out there but a handful of fat cats on the top and an underclass below.

The truth is that a huge number of credit-carded, mortgage-paying, suburban blue-collar workers think of themselves as both middle-class and working people. Nothing reminds them of this more than General Motors' announcement that it plans to eliminate more than 70,000 jobs.

The motive of the neo-Democrats and their handlers is elementary: to conjure up a majority in the minds of the voters -- to collect, from the disparate corners of the country, a crowd that thinks of itself in unison, as a whole.

Once, Democrats knew how to fashion the illusion of commonality from the fragments of class, race and region. The name of their achievement was the New Deal, which persuaded the Slovakian steelworker from Chicago to vote with the Jewish salesman from Miami, the white farmer from Mississippi with the black bus driver from New York.

This is what successful politicians do. Ronald Reagan's genius was his ability to persuade the garage mechanic from Pittsburgh that his interests were best served by voting with the oil executive from Houston -- that they would all bask together in the same bright American morning.

Today, by a rhetorical stroke, the political wizards have banished working people. Democratic candidates panic at the prospect of being thought the partisans of "special interests." In the current atmosphere, unions and other organizations counting millions of members have become equated with the Association of Aluminum Widgets -- special interests all. Thus the neo-Democratic invention of the great, seamless, all-embracing Middle Class.

The trouble with this rhetoric of the moment is that it offers little assurance to the tens of millions of potential Democratic voters who legitimately feel especially endangered by what is euphemistically called a recession.

Obviously, the Democrats cannot win without appealing to a majority. But neither can they win without exciting the passions as well as the interests of those who know perfectly well that they don't work in the executive suite and who may very well feel left out by the rhetoric of the Middle Class: the truck drivers and farm workers, the waitresses and hamburger-slingers, the secretaries and janitors; the inner-city African-Americans and the elderly widows trying to live on Social Security; all of those GM workers wondering whether they, or their wives or husbands or parents or cousins, will be laid off; all of the young people who know that even if the GM jobs are eliminated only by attrition, that's just a fancy way of saying that when they go out to look for work there will be one less place to work.

These are the people who lack not only health insurance but on-the-job safety. These are the people teetering on the verge of welfare, if they are not already there. They are the principal victims of crime and the people most likely to live next to toxic dumps. These are the people whose interests and values overlap those of the now-mythic middle class -- the people who, believing in the promises of Reaganomics, took on more mortgage than they can now handle, the people who have to say no to their kids' college dreams, who fear that retirement may mean poverty, thanks to worthless pensions.

If the Democrats can address the Middle Class and Working People together, it will remind them that they have more in common with each other than with the party of George Herbert Walker Bush and J. Danforth Quayle.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Ruth Rosen is a professor of history at University of California, Davis. They wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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