This election was mainly interesting for what it forced to the surface. Many people began paying attention. But the election itself wasn’t a fundamental change from trends and developments that have been happening for decades.
Politics after WWII was built on the growing middle class. And it was mostly a white middle class. The New Deal programs, the GI Bill, and such were designed to primarily help whites and to exclude minorities. Still, even many minorities were making economic gains at the time and increasingly joining the middle class. Not all boats were being floated, but more than ever before. And it was built with extremely high taxation on the rich. Creating a middle class doesn’t come cheap.
That subsidized and supported growing middle class made possible a new kind of politics. It took shape in the early Cold War, but only gained full force in the latter part of the 20th century. As much of the population became economically comfortable and complacent, they became ripe for the rhetoric of red-baiting, union-busting, culture wars, civil rights fights, and identity politics. Politicians had long stopped talking about the working class, about those aspiring to do better, and in its place came an emphasis on those who had already made it. The white middle class decided to pull up the ladder behind them and barricade the door.
Wages began to stagnate when I was born, back in 1976. Well, they stagnated for the average worker, which means they were dropping for the working poor. Buying power was decreasing, but people were able to maintain their lifestyles by working longer hours or multiple jobs. The economic problems were mostly felt across generations, as education costs increased and opportunities decreased, as job security disappeared and good benefits became rare. The unions made sure to protect older workers, which meant sacrificing younger workers. And the union leadership defended the political status quo in the hope of maintaining their increasingly precarious position. But the influence of unions was being felt by a decreasing number of Americans, especially among the working class and those falling out of the middle class.
Still, even going into the 21st century, there was still a large middle class. It was beginning to show signs of serious hurting, but the inertia of the economy kept the reversals from being noticed by the political and media elite. It was only at the bottom of society that it was obvious how bad it was getting, specifically among the young. That was true even in the 1980s and 1990s. GenXers were the only generation last century to experience a recession that only their generation experienced, and black GenXers were hurt the worst. That was true going back in the early life of GenXers with worsening child poverty rates. The vibrant middle class was poisoned in the cribs of GenX.
The talk of the middle class continued until this election. What had become clear this past decade or so, though, is that politicians and pundits in talking about the middle class were often actually talking about the working class. More people were falling out of the middle class, instead of entering it. In the past, simply aspiring to be middle class made you middle class, no matter if you were born working class and had a working class job. Middle class was primarily defined as an aspiration and the American Dream was about upward mobility. It was the sense that the whole country was moving up, all or most boats were being floated. But that has been changing for a long time.
This is the first election in my lifetime where the political and media elite finally had to admit that the US was defined by its working class, not its middle class. That is because in recent years this has become unavoidable. The US economic mobility had been falling behind other countries for a while, and fairly recently the US middle class lost its position as the most wealthy in the world. Trump won his nomination through inciting the fears and anxieties of a hurting middle class, as his earliest supporters weren’t the poor and working class, but he won the election because of those on the bottom of society, the working poor. Once Sanders was eliminated, Trump was the last candidate left standing who talked about economic populism and economic reform. As many have been reminding the Democratic establishment, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
It turns out that the mid-20th century middle class, along with the post-war economic boom that made it possible, was a historical anomaly. We are once again a working class country. And it isn’t a working class that is feeling all that hopeful at the moment. These Americans aren’t a temporarily down-on-their-luck middle class, much less temporarily embarrassed millionaires, nor are they even aspiring to much beyond not being left behind. Unless the entire economic and political system is reformed, this working class is here to stay. And if we continue on this path, it will become a permanent underclass.