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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

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 mid-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 at Angry Bear.


  1. Your comment about inequality during the Clinton administration is misleading. The bottom 20% did far better in income growth than during the Reagan administration -- or any other Republican administration for that matter -- while the growing gap with the extremely wealthy was primarily an artifact of their capital gains windfalls during the stock market bubble. Clinton's presidency is properly to be excoriated for its deregulation of the finance industry, but among raising the minimum wage, increasing the earned-income credit and top marginal tax rates, and more benign approaches to labor (including hands-off during the successful UPS strike), there were successful moves to improve conditions for low income Americans. The poverty rate sunk to its lowest level ever before Bush blew away the social contract that Clinton was succeeding in restoring.

    1. Thanks for your comment. There is no question that Clinton was better for labor in the ways you say, but there were also increases in the minimum wage during the George HW Bush and second GW Bush administrations, let's not forget. If you look at the book's chart on page 52 and compare it with the S&P 500 index, you will see that the 1%'s income gains track the stock market closely, so its increase in the 2000s is also due to capital gains. Finally, I think the authors should not have hidden behind claims about the top 5% not doing any better than anyone else during the Clinton years without explaining why their own chart showed that the top 1% was making out like gangbusters during the same period.