U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Little Man, What Now?: The Lower Middle Class, Trump, and the 2016 Election

A great piece by labor historian Jack Metzgar from earlier today begins

Most of the time the white working class is invisible in the U.S. But during elections there is a flurry of attention to this “demographic” among political reporters and operatives, and as a result, also among the millions of us who read, listen, and watch their reporting, analyses, and endless speculation about who is ahead and behind and why… [This ‘reporting’ is] becoming a low-level one-sided cultural class war where what Nadine Hubbs calls “the narrating class” blithely assumes that working-class whites are “America’s perpetual bigot class.”

As you can probably surmise, this opening is a lead-up to a revision of the unquestioned assumption that Donald Trump’s base of support lies among working-class whites and that, as Robert Reich said yesterday, “Trump is… channeling the fears and resentments of the white working class into hatefulness and violence.”

Metzgar points out that, statistically speaking, working class whites are actually under-represented among Trump supporters, while college-educated whites are over-represented. Those fears and resentments which Reich all too rightly fears are surging through the middle class as well, and it is only too convenient to shrug them off onto a class whom “we” can puzzle over as a psychologically enigmatic and alien Other. [Cue requisite jab at What’s the Matter with Kansas?] Admitting that he would “guess… that there is more bigotry and intolerance in the working class,” Metzgar nevertheless insists that “the only thing I’m sure of is that bigotry and intolerance are present and absent in both classes.  And as part of the narrating middle class, I recognize how comforting a blame-shifting bigot-class narrative can be…”

With this I largely agree, but that’s not why I’m writing. Instead, what I want to point out is that, in Metzgar’s model—and in all coverage that I have seen regarding the composition of Trump’s support—there no longer is any place for the lower middle class. Given the unusual importance of and emphasis on that class to previous historical and journalistic accounts of “silent majorities” and the followings of various demagogues from Karl Lueger to George Wallace, I have to ask,

Are we not talking about the lower middle class any more?

It is possible, of course, that economic circumstances have simply deleted this stratum: the slim, liminal margin (always a matter more of status than means) separating the middle class and working class proper has been suffocated by the pressures of the 2008 crisis and its aftermath. But in part because the concept of the lower middle class is about status, wouldn’t the identity prove more resistant to economic erosion, or at least to the flash floods of the housing and credit collapse? And, given that at least one theory of the rise of fascism has placed the lower middle class in the starring role, why should a new economic downturn eliminate it rather than return it to a position of analytical prominence?

The classic theoretical statement on the “lower middle class as a historical problem” is Arno Mayer’s 1975 article. Pulling no punches, Mayer wrote on behalf of the stark necessity of studying the lower middle class: “The fascist furor alone should serve as a terrifying reminder of the pivotal role of the lower middle class in contemporary history.” Mayer’s brief history of the concept is also, necessarily, a history of prophecies of the lower middle class’s submergence or sublimation—it was always supposed to be in the process of proletarianization or embourgeoisement. No: “like the laboring class, the lower middle class generates and keeps generating a separate culture, ethos, life-style, and world view,” Mayer counters. Perhaps, however, that is no longer true.

Is there a place in the 2016 election for the “lower middle class?” Surely, the words “lower middle class” will not solve our analytical problems or provide the answers so many pundits and observers are casting about for as we attempt to understand and historicize the Trump candidacy. And certainly, no one is better off making a newly rediscovered “lower middle class” simply a new “bigot class,” as Metzgar has it. The problems of white racial resentment and xenophobia are severe and pervasive, and bracketing them within any single class label is counterproductive.

But one detail in the Metzgar piece points to how astonishingly simple our ideas of class can be, and perhaps reintroducing the term “lower middle class” may at least break into that simplicity a little. Metzgar points out that the definition of “working class” used in many studies is someone who lacks a bachelor’s degree. That single dimension apparently is sufficient. This feels to me like a problem, and one not unrelated to why Trump and his supporters remain so “mysterious” to “us.”

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for a great post Andy. I think that if you figure whiteness into the equation of social stratification all working class whites are in some sense lower middle class. Also, there is the problem that white people no longer like to think of themselves as working class, the majority of them say of themselves that they are middle class.
    Another problem is that with so few manufacturing jobs and so many service jobs our traditional categories of class need a major reevaluation.

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