Ignore the Angry Middle Class At Your Peril

There’s an interesting article today by John Judis in the National Journal about the rise of the “Middle American Radical.” These are essentially Donald Trump’s voters and Ross Perot’s voters, characterized primarily by the belief that the middle class is being disadvantaged by a focus on both the rich and the poor. They earned the moniker Middle American Radical several decades ago:

Warren called these voters Middle American Radicals, or MARS. “MARS are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected,” Warren wrote. They saw “government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously.” Like many on the left, MARS were deeply suspicious of big business: Compared with the other groups he surveyed—lower-income whites, middle-in-come whites who went to college, and what Warren called “affluents”—MARS were the most likely to believe that corporations had “too much power,” “don’t pay attention,” and were “too big.” MARS also backed many liberal programs: By a large percentage, they favored government guaranteeing jobs to everyone; and they supported price controls, Medicare, some kind of national health insurance, federal aid to education, and Social Security.

It’s an interesting point that helps explain why Trump has managed to stay at the top of the GOP field despite significant unorthodoxy on healthcare, taxes and other issues of concern to wealthy Republican donors.

But I would argue that this sentiment extends far beyond just the demographic Judis explains. As a focus group moderator myself and a longtime precinct walker and phonebanker, I’ve talked to countless voters who have expressed similar sentiments–and they have ranged across political parties, age, races and genders.

I particularly remember a series of focus groups I conducted among undecided, infrequent minority voters who were almost universally angry with food stamp and welfare programs because they worked full-time jobs and made just a little too much to qualify for them. They were angry that friends and neighbors of theirs were able to get assistance from the government, and they themselves were being “punished” for working. These were still liberal-leaning voters who were not going to vote for Republicans anytime soon because of their racism and because they wanted those welfare programs to continue to exist in case they themselves lost their job–but it didn’t change their angry perception that American government, in their eyes, seemed to advantage both the rich and the poor at the expense of the middle class.

And, predictably, the effect tends to be even greater among more comfortable white voters, who often have an unrealistically romantic idea of what being unemployed and on welfare is really like.

Republicans exploit this sentiment ruthlessly, but are of course hampered by their relentless determination to give the entire private and public treasury to the very richest. They also underestimate the degree to which, while many Americans do feel this frustration about the perceived lack of assistance to the middle class, they don’t necessarily want help for them to come at the expense of help for the poor–in other words, they don’t want to remove assistance to the poor so much as they want to increase assistance for the middle class.

Democrats hurt themselves in this respect through their rhetoric. Especially for neoliberal politicians, Democrats all too often speak as if the economy and government were working fairly well for everyone, but needed to be adjusted to “take care of those left behind.” Voters who hear that rhetoric assume that Democrats are going to take money out of their pockets to give to the poor. When talking about minimum wage, Democrats don’t spend enough time mentioning the macroeconomic effects, indicating how higher minimum wages aren’t just helpful to the families who directly receive the raise, but for everyone receiving the benefits of increased consumer demand and spending in the economy.

It’s an artifact of America’s peculiar winner-take-all political system that we only have two functional parties. Economically, this means that the conservative party works to align the middle class with the wealthy against the poor, while the liberal party works to align the poor and the middle class against the rich. But the middle class ideally wants to promote its own interests above all, and all too often it seems to them like no one is doing that.

Fortunately, there is no reason that Democrats need to reduce empathy or benefits to the poor in order to accomplish this. Policies like universal healthcare, student loan reform, housing reform and others serve to benefit everyone in the 99%, and can be accomplishing without making any cuts to the most unfortunate and oppressed in society.

What they don’t like is the comfortable neoliberal “center” in which everyone is supposed to get along with a smiling corporatist agenda, letting the rich use the market to run rampant over the middle class while smoothing out the sharpest edges at the very bottom. That makes almost everyone angry.

In short, there are a lot more “Trump voters” both liberal and conservative in society than many political observers imagine, and it’s only the two-party system that hides that fact. Fortunately, liberals are in a better position to take advantage of this than are conservatives. But doing so would require a much broader agenda of universal benefits.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.