America invented the middle class. Europe invented the working class. The differences explain practically everything about why politics in America barely resembles politics and parties across the Atlantic.
The industrial revolutions in Europe took place against a background of the aristocratic traditions of class, rank, and royalty. The growing wealth of the working classes produced a constituency allied against the upper ranks. The working class did not wish to be merely included in some political food-chain along with the aristocracy: It competed with the vestiges of royalty for political power. Aristocratic politics were expressed in the language of the Tories. The working classes were the Labor party or the socialists and communists.
In America, the industrial revolution was only one component of the rise of wealth in the new nation. Both American democracy and the peculiar demography of the nation meant the economic and spatial difference between the landed gentry of the Colonies and the farmers, tradesmen and factory workers of the new nation was far more compressed than in Europe. The difficulties of colonial life created a communal bonding in America that leveled the classes and created an aspirational narrative within which any American could see themselves. The American middle class was about having choices and the will to imagine advancement beyond any class limitations. The middle classes didn’t want to eliminate the aristocracy: they wanted to join it.
In America the middle class is both the Republican and the Democratic parties. Since 1960 the Democrats have been more about recruiting new members of the middle class (blacks and immigrants), while the Republicans have been more about protecting people who are certain they are in the middle class (suburban whites and successful working people).
The idea of a diverse power elite made up of the rich and educated, the newly rich, the uneducated rich, the rich of any and all races, began as a uniquely American concept that has now been taken up by nations in the developing world. Brazil, Russia, Mexico and China all have American-style middle classes. Donald Trump is a middle class character whose success is a model for middle class aspirations. In Mexico, Carlos Slim challenges the traditional aristocracy by being both a billionaire and a man of the people.
America’s middle class, though, has been threatened by its own success. The definition of the middle class is that people of generic roots like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Robert Johnson, and Sam Walton can become billionaires. But their success is not duplicatable in 2010. Their stories are more a symbol of the death of the American dream than it's health or accessibility. Buffet/Johnson/Walton/Gates are so far beyond the reach of the median (middle) American that they reveal how our wealth distribution now more resembles 17th century France than even 18th century America. For all of American history most Americans wanted to be in the middle class; the rich and poor alike claimed legitimacy by insisting on their membership in this group. Now, with so many Americans struggling with a sense that their options are narrowing – with even the prospect of home ownership slipping beyond their grasp – the narrative of the middle class feels absurd, or unreal.
Who is in the middle class? Perhaps the better question is where did it go? Like a lot of American inventions, it may be alive and well in China these days. It’s pretty hard to find in America in 2010. I hope Obama can find it this week.