The middle class: An American tragedy, in numbers

  • Updated: November 8, 2013 - 6:32 PM

Without a middle class, there's no cultural ballast to steady the government against clashing passions.


Something’s gone wrong with America. Most of us feel it but can’t put our finger on the problem.

The canary-in-the-coal-mine warning is the collapse of trust in our institutions. The percentage of Americans who lack deep, abiding trust in institutions — the kind that gets you through dark nights of the soul — as of June 2013 was as follows: in the Congress, 95 percent; in big business and newspapers, 91 percent; in banks and the criminal-justice system, 90 percent; in television news, 89 percent; in the Supreme Court, 87 percent; in public schools, 86 percent; in the presidency, 81 percent; in organized religion, 75 percent.

As trust in politicians has declined, they’ve spent ever more dollars per vote to get elected. The cost of a presidential election was $1.4 billion in 2000 and $2.6 billion in 2012. Congressional races overall cost $1.6 billion in 2000 and $3.7 billion in 2012.

Americans are not happy. Only 33 percent report themselves as being happy. The average global rate for confidence in the future is 89 percent of people surveyed. In the United States, only 67 percent are optimistic about their futures.

Confidence in our res publica is on the wane because our middle class has been in decline. This problem is so big and so dangerous that all of us need to come together in agreement that the problem is real and needs to be addressed by leaders of all factions.

America, uniquely, has always been a ­middle-class country — no aristocracy, no peasantry, and later, under industrialization, to the great frustration of Marxists, no proletariat. Americans were always of the middling social orders. This was the thesis of Harvard Prof. Louis Hartz as he explained in the middle of the last century why we had always had centrist politics.

The Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania came from the rising middle class and early capitalists of England, Scotland and Wales. The more socially exclusive Cavaliers, who led the founding of Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas, were not aristocrats in English terms but merely squires. Succeeding waves of immigrants — even down to today’s Vietnamese and Hispanics — have been thoroughly middle-class in their aspirations.

The importance of a robust middle class is primarily political. Middle classes are the foundation for constitutionalism and justice under the rule of law. Historians of government and politics, and especially Marxists, all agree that democratic institutions rise up when there is a social tipping point toward middle-class cultural influence and lifestyles.

The American Civil War was fought by a middle-class industrialized North against a Southern gentry aping aristocratic lifestyles and ruling an enslaved peasantry. The North was democratic; the South was really not.

The left’s dismissive label for our kind of society is “bourgeois.” But liberty and democracy root in bourgeois cultures, not in aristocratic or peasant/proletarian ones. Those social orders produce authoritarian regimes from absolute monarchs to revolutionary dictators like Lenin and Mao.

Today’s collapse of social order in Egypt, after the hopes of the Arab Spring, is occurring in a society that has a weak middle class. The future of liberalizing political reform in China will be written in the coming decades, if at all, by its rising middle class.

If rising middle classes succor functioning constitutional democracies, then the collapse of middle classes will undermine democracy.


In recent decades, changing economic realities have reduced the size and hopes of America’s middle class.

Americans living in middle-class neighborhoods in the 117 largest metropolitan areas have declined in numbers. In 1970, they comprised 65 percent of the population; now, it’s 44 percent. Over those 43 years, Americans living in the poor neighborhoods grew from 15 percent of residents to 30 percent, while Americans living in the rich neighborhoods (increasingly exurbs) grew from 7 percent to 14 percent.

Thus our socioeconomic profile has bifurcated — the extremes have grown at the expense of the middle.

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