Middle-Class Shame Will Decide Where America Is Headed
Shalynn Womack is 60 years old and lives with a lot of economic uncertainty. She’s one of a group, she says, that “didn’t get the life we thought being well-educated would provide.” Ms. Womack, who lives in Tennessee, is still plagued by “the sense that I must have done something terribly wrong somewhere along the way.”
She said that she and her husband fight about money, scrutinize their spending and often regret the purchases they make. “Certainly, we’ve choked down a big dose of anger about this downward spiral,” she told me.
Over the past few years, I have spoken to hundreds of people, like Ms. Womack, who define themselves as middle class but are seriously economically challenged. In their lives, an illness could mean bankruptcy. I talked to many people who had college degrees, were convinced they were on the right path, yet were shaken by their endless debt — from the cost of their graduate degrees, caring for an elderly parent or paying for a child’s medication.
Sometimes their professions had contracted, resulting in a loss of jobs. Sometimes it was because their work had become irregular and they had no union to negotiate for them. Health care and education cost far more than they once did and wages were barely inching up. As a result, they had personal pain — and ire — that many politicians didn’t take seriously enough.
After all, what I have called the “middle precariat” vote — or what could be called the anxiety vote — gave us this president, and now it has also given us a Democratic House. It is a powerful force.
Any Democrat who wants to win the White House in 2020 is going to need to harness the power of these voters. Indeed, the race has very much started, including the recent announcement of a presidential campaign exploratory committee by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has already started to emphasize how the middle class is “hollowed out.”
One of the first challenges is getting people to admit they are struggling financially, and to talk publicly about it. This can be hard for members of the middle class, a group that has a real sense of stigma about financial floundering. They are hobbled by a long-held obsession with privacy and don’t always acknowledge what is troubling them, according to research by Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist at New York University.
The second — and most basic — way of addressing the anxious middle-class vote is by acknowledging people’s suffering. At rallies, ask people with student or medical debt to raise their hands, so that they don’t quietly carry it with them for their lives, afraid to speak because they don’t want to admit they need help.
Candidates and politicians should follow the example of New York’s new Democratic congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who acknowledged that she wouldn’t be able to pay the costly rent for a Washington apartment until her government paychecks start coming in. They should openly discuss the tendency of many people to blame themselves for their professional and financial distress. Donald Trump jumped on this discomfort in 2016, after all, and made it part of his rhetoric, even though, of course, he had no intention of changing much.
Secrecy about income and money is defeatist. Anat Shenker-Osorio, a messaging expert, discovered that in focus groups which included middle-class people, she heard a lot of expressions of self-loathing. Between refrains about the cost of living and remarks like “I can’t get the kids to college,” participants made statements that conveyed their deeply held belief that not making it meant they were not working hard enough.
“They have imbibed this idea that your economic well-being is traceable principally to your own efforts,” Ms. Shenker-Osorio said.
As a result, what the electorate doesn’t need to hear are Horatio Alger stories of how candidates worked their way up from humble origins, with the implied moral that anyone can make it in America with enough hard work. These kinds of tales can insidiously lead middle-class people today to blame themselves more for not flourishing.
Instead, the new Congress and candidates of the future should tell voters that it’s O.K. to be mad about being in debt, that this is a savage society we now live in. They could talk about their own experience of debt, be it student or medical, or the debt of someone in their family. (What makes this a bit harder is how unrelatable, and depressing, the wealth of our Congress still is: in 2015, it was majority millionaire.)
To win the anxious middle-class vote, politicians must offer real solutions for the challenges in the lives of these voters, especially on health care and education. One example of this is the scholarship program that Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York put in place: 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year will qualify to attend tuition-free at colleges in the New York State and New York City public university systems. Though not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction.
It is important to get these voters beyond the shame of debt, perhaps by allowing student debtors to be able to declare bankruptcy related to student loans, something that is nearly impossible to do now, and obtain debt forgiveness.
An actual “Medicare for all” proposal would get at the heart of what is a real challenge for many. Michèle Lamont, a sociologist at Harvard who specializes in culture and inequality, told me that her work found that when candidates promote a policy like Medicare for all, even if it doesn’t come to fruition they are signaling that they understand voters’ need for solidarity and give voice to their hopes and difficulties by making them visible.
And politicians should not turn their backs on populism. Although now it may be seen as the province of the xenophobic right, it was, in previous eras (the 1890s!), a crucial progressive inspiration within our country.
Politicians from both parties understand the power of anger and anxiety as a motivating factor for voters. Post-President Trump, it’s impossible not to. But the frustration that comes from people who find themselves slipping down the economic gradient is one of the most powerful untapped resources in American politics today.
A few possible Democratic candidates for the 2020 nomination, from Bernie Sanders to Beto O’Rourke, seem to understand this possibility, and have been attempting to redirect Americans’ anger toward fighting for the things they need, like reasonably priced education and health care. Mr. Trump, no doubt, will continue to mine this territory in a re-election campaign, despite his role in fueling our neglect to begin with.
Middle-class and poor voters have more in common with one another today than they do with the economic ultra-elite. And if they can continue to organize into coalitions, they could be truly powerful forces. Maybe they’d take to the streets most weeks and shut down our cities on a more regular basis, like they do in France.
Then again, maybe the people we elect can express our pain for us instead, so we wouldn’t have to.
Alissa Quart is the executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and the author of “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.”
Co-published with The New York Times.