It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! (Review)
by Kenneth Thomas
It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! (Review)
When I saw that James Carville and Stan Greenberg had just published It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! (Blue Rider Press), I knew that I would want to read it. I had always liked Carville’s We’re Right, They’re Wrong and wanted to know his take on approaching the declining fortunes of the middle class.
While this book includes some diagnosis of the problems and has a very detailed and very good set of policy proposals, primarily it is a work on political strategy. Based on polling and focus groups the authors have conducted over the last several years (as well as their long experience running campaigns and polling), Carville and Greenberg analyze what they consider some of the political failures of the Obama Administration, particularly with regards to messaging.
For example, they argue that Americans are not persuaded by Team Obama’s continuing emphasis on the fact that the President inherited a mess from the Bush Administration (Chapter 11). Although voters place much of the blame for the Great Recession on President Bush, Greenberg reports that his focus groups reacted very negatively to President Obama’s car-in-the-ditch metaphor (“I’m still in the ditch!” many told Greenberg) and the participants expressed strong opinions that we needed to look forward, not backward.
As one said, “[Obama] is trying to say things are turning around, but the numbers are still bad.” The premature declaration of victory by the Administration described here has been strongly criticized by Paul Krugman, among others. Economically effective policy is the best talking point. Carville and Greenberg also give a compelling litany of sophisticated responses to even “good” job creation news on pp. 103-7.
The second big, non-obvious, point is that Americans really are concerned about the deficit and debt (Chapter 8). Again, even though they recognize the role of the Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars in creating that debt, they are still leery about the possibility of spending our way to more economic growth, though not by huge majorities. Too many of them are convinced of the false analogy between households and governments, although Paul Krugman is doing his best to convince them with his new book, End This Depression Now! The framing the authors found most persuasive to middle class voters was an emphasis on “investments that will get our country back on track.” Tellingly, as Carville and Greenberg note, their respondents did not see the debt as a reason to cut Social Security or Medicare.
Third, but more obvious, middle class voters don’t see government as the solution because they consider it to be captured by elite interests. The focus groups showed that this view led to some tendency to paralysis and disengagement from politics. It is from this point that Carville and Greenberg pivot to their most important policy recommendation: Amend the Constitution or obtain a Supreme Court that will overturn Citizens United and end corporate personhood. In addition, they call for public financing of elections, disclosure of campaign contributions, requiring broadcasters to cut the price of political ads, and ending the revolving door of office holders and lobbyists. All this is in support of a politics that makes rebuilding the middle class Job 1 for government, and for a consistent framing of all issues (including foreign policy) in terms of their impact on the middle class.
Not everything in the book is persuasive. At one point Greenberg says the popularity of raising taxes on the rich “is as close to an absolute truth you can have in polling” (p. 144). I have two problems with this. First, you could say the same thing for other industrialized democracies. Sven Steinmo, writing in the early 1990s, has cited polling results for the U.S., U.K., and Sweden, all of which showed publics that thought the rich should pay more taxes, yet in none of these cases has that been the direction of policy over the last 30 years. To me, this suggests there is an international dimension that helped make government capture possible, but the book does not address globalization very much at all.
Second, the book devotes relatively little attention to another issue that also is overwhelmingly supported in poll after poll: raising the minimum wage. Yes, making work pay is an important theme in the book and the authors acknowledge that increasing the minimum wage is part of that, but they say nothing about how putting the issue on many state ballots helped increase Democratic turnout in 2006. In Missouri, for example, the minimum wage Proposition B passed by a 76-24 margin, helping Claire McCaskill squeak out a U.S. Senate win with less than 50% of the vote.
The other weakness of the book is that the authors are too close to President Clinton to give a completely objective view of his Presidency. While they make a single parenthetical reference about how NAFTA may not have been such a great idea for the middle class after all, they say nothing about how “ending welfare as we know it” was bad for the middle class. This can best be seen by thinking about income determination as a massive bargaining situation. Anything that takes away one side’s options reduces its bargaining power, and the 1996 welfare reform did just that. In addition, they seem blind to the fact that income inequality (top 1% vs. the 20th-80th percentiles) took off during the Clinton Administration far in excess of what had been seen under President Reagan, as a glance at their chart on p. 52 shows.
Finally, the book has no index, which is very annoying when you have 296 pages of text and 25 pages of endnotes.
Those caveats aside, this is a very good book that deserves a careful reading by progressive activists. I certainly learned something from it, and I’m sure you will, too.
cross posted with Middle Class Political Economist
Ole Snakehead Carville has a nice ability to cut through all of the crapola and diagnose the problem.
The solution is tougher though.
Few buy the “tax the rich” sales pitch, because they know those increases will fail, and the next round will be targeted squarely at the middle class. That is the exact experience in Maryland over the past 4 years.
First round tax panacea sold as on the rich. It failed. Rounds 2 and 3 hit the middle class and poor. And round 4 coming soon hits the middle class again.
mcwop – “Few buy the “tax the rich” sales pitch,…”
Sorry, but dead wrong. How can you read the results of the polls, which overwhelmingly favor taxing the rich more heavily and then write that? Most “buy” the notion of taxing the rich, here and elsewhere. If we actually had government by and for the people, taxes on the rich would be higher. The fact that they are not higher is a reflection of government by and for the rich.
Rusty is right about alternatives. That gods for political speech as well as for action. It’s fine for Carvil and Greenberg to find out that “in the ditch” doesn’t sound so nice, but absent a real alternative, that leaves Obama’s propagandists with nothing to say. “Morning in America”? Nope. Growth after a credit crunch will be slow, no matter what slogan you slap on it. Policy can help, but it can’t make things the way they were. “Morning in America” would make people mad pretty soon, too. “Change”? Not at this time, no. “Rich, Greedy Scum”? We’re in the process of finding out how that plays right now.
“…that goes for political speech…” Not gods. Ye gads.
“To me, this suggests there is an international dimension that helped make government capture possible, but the book does not address globalization very much at all.”
You don’t say!! This is a revalation to you? What is the history of government other than govenment by and for the wealthiest sectors of any geo-political entity? My wife keeps telling me the same thing. It’s never been any different. We all work our asses off for the good of the many, but maybe a little more so for the good of the very few. Who they are and how they got to the top of the economic heap
is secondary to their coordinated political behavior. The system has always favored the money because the money is fungible, especially the money you take from others. It spreads so easily to those who most willingly reflect the ideology of those with and/or those who can easily take. Do we all live in one largbe echo chamber?
“… because they know those increases will fail,…” mcwop
What on Earth does that mean? A tax increase that fails, so it is replaced by an alternate form of tax increase? Explain the failure and how or who engineered the alternative. Maybe the voters in Maryland are just stupid, like the rest of us.
The rich are much happier without a middle class. The middle class has proven to be a failed experiment as far as the wealthy are concerned, and one they do not want to happen again anytime soon. As the Reich’s minister Herr Goebbels once said about the masses of poor slavs the Germans were leaving in their wake as they moved east into Russia. “Teach them just enough German so they can read our traffic signs so they don’t get run over by our tanks.” The American version is just substitute English for German and Mercedes for tanks.
Jack and Anonymous
don’t beat up on McWop. he may be wrong about “few buy…”
but he is right on the facts… that the “tax the rich” always fails. if it succeeds in one election it is soon corrected back to business as usual.
i don’t think “tax the rich” is good politics, or good mental hygiene. i think making the case that we need to pay taxes to make the economy work for all of us… rich as well as poor… is doable. but it goes out the window when you frame it as class war.
coberly who shall remain anonymous until google relents.
But Dale, you know very well that the framing as a class war has always been the favorite of the rich, or atleast their spokesmen. No doubt that the wealthiest will continuously exploit our fears and hatreds in order to create a common bond with the masses. So let’s not talk of taxing the rich. Let’s only speak of taxing income, all income without regard to how that income was earned, or not, as in the case of that famous oxymoron, unearned income. All new revenue into one’s account is taxed. But let us not forget that our society and our economy is a differential process. We do not all take from the econoomy in an equivalent amount or manner. Some benefit from the efforts of organized economic activity to a far greater extent than others and a few to a far greater estent than that. Tax the income and base the tax on the differential benefit from the structures that make the income possible.
What I meant is that globalization has had an effect on the ability of owners of mobile capital to avoid higher taxation despite what their publics want.
Capitalist countries run the gamut on income distribution and size of government, so it’s not enough to say that the rich control everything because money is fungible. Money has not always been as mobile as it is today.
I know you were being ironic but FYI my academic field is international political economy.
This is a very interesting point people are making here – the popularity of taxing the rich.
I think this is a genuine odd effect. Taxing the rich seems very popular, yet it does not quite happen to plan, and undoubtably some of this is due to the influence of the rich within American politics.
However, I think something else is going on too in this effect. Opinion polls can be treated as a chance to howl with rage, and express an angry view that the voter will not actually follow up in the voting booth. Many people are frustrated with being poor and in debt and feel anger that others are better off, but deep down recognise the emotionality of their own reaction. I think a segment of voters angrily blame the rich in front of pollsters while knowing in private that this solution will not really work.
They are rather sending a help-us-out-or-we-ll-get-angry message through the pollster.
In the same way in Britain protest votes at mid-term parliamentary by-elections often let in unusual or fringe MPs and express anger with the government. Yet the same voters behave much more cautiously during a national election when their vote carries a risk of helping decide who will be the governing party.
Support among ordinary Americans expressed in opinion polls for heavy taxes on the rich might be partly working like this.
But you cannot have it both ways. If the rich must stay rich and get richer because they move everything in the world important to the worker’s economic well being, then, when the worker is doing his part or begging to do his part but finds himself down and out, IT MUST BE the fault of the rich.
They cannot be totally personally responsible until they have the resources to have self-determination as a realistic and workable choice.
No man is an island….
A House divided ….
“They are rather sending a help-us-out-or-we-ll-get-angry message through the pollster.” M.G.
Come on man, this isn’t rocket science. No, the rich have been enjoying a too much taxation holiday for about 5,000 years of human history. At least the history wherein people congregate as a collective we for what ever reason. So given that the wealthiest people take out the biggest percentage of wealth relative to their population size and enjoy far greater benefits from their societies than do the poor and the working hordes, I’d ssay that people do now and will continue forever to wish that the rich would pay the tax on what they enjoy. He who gets the greatest benefit from the “people” owe back the greatest share of the cost of maintaining the “people” as an agragate.
Ken, Yes I was being just a little ironic. We often over look the common threads of human history when we seek to tease through the strands of differences that may exist between groups. The wealthiest people are in control in every government. In rare cases, recent military coup might be an example, but not always, a new regime takes power and some of the rich who chose unwisely find themselves on the other side of the coin.
I mostly agree with you. just that “tax the rich” is not a good election slogan. it annoys the rich, and they control the voting machines (maybe why “voters” are more moderate than the people who answer polls?)
rather that worry about oo’ gets the most biggest from the economy,i prefer taxing all income at a progressive rate on the idea that the marginal value of money decreases the more of it you have. but i am not at all fond of “fine tuning the economy” or fine tuning cosmic justice through the tax code.
i’d rather appeal to their patriotism and their pride. they can brag at the club about how much they pay in taxes instad of how much their yacht cost.
and yes the rich do worry about military coups. but the new boss is always the same as the old boss.
Jack, when a governor sells a tax hike on the rich as a fix for our budget, and then it does not fix the budget, and he comes back with tax hikes on the poor and middle class – that is a failure bud. And you know full well a hike on the rich at the federal level won;t bring in diddly, and won;t fix anything. Plus we have a tax hike coming for Obamacare. So based on your views that should solve all of our problems, right?
Also Jack, what polls are you looking at? Its about Jobs, and more taxes will not create new jobs. Obama is such a misfocused putz – Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. Don’t get me worng Romney is a putz too.
Ooo, this is really kinda cool, just from the point of view of pure rhetorical fun. We have mcwop arguing based on false consensus, and coberly backing him up based on false consciousness. Nice.
mcwop started out by saying that “nobody would buy” a tax on the rich, when polls show the majority would prefer to tax the rich more than they are taxed now. mcwop obviously opposes taxing the rich. There’s the false consensus.
When mcwops whopper was pointed out, coberly agreed mcwop was wrong about public opinion, but said we should not cast the taxation issue in class warfare terms, for reasons of salesmanship. That’s where false consciousness comes in. There is a large group of rich folk paying to make sure that the “Overton window” excludes discussion of class warfare in any way other than shock that populists would say bad things about rich people. That is purely an effort to maintain false consciousness. The rich hire Bush and Ryan and tee-baggers and they are trying to hire Romney to put the burden of paying for government on the middle class. Hell, on the poor if enough money can be squeezed out of them. The very argument that it’s impossible to get money out of rich people is cooked up by rich people. OF COURSE you can get money out of rich people. If it has become harder over time, it’s because the law has been jiggered to favor letting rich people hide money.
Refusing to recognize class warfare when it is clearly underway just gives the other side a walk-over. If the truth is that the rich have corrupted the system, how do we ever hope to make it right without even being willing to say, out loud, that the rich have corrupted the system?