Middle class. Middle of the road. Middle America. Mid-market.
Where have they gone? These once meaningful terms, describing the many great strengths that derive from America's proud tradition of moderation, remain in the language but are slipping from reality. It's no news that the middle class and middle-of-the-road politics have taken big hits in recent years. However, does the decline of all of these "middles" reflect a common, broader truth about how the United States has changed during the last few decades?
Has a nation that long prided itself on its aversion to extremes — in wealth, in politics, in values, in education, and even the prices of consumer goods — become a land of the rich versus the struggling, right- and left-wing ideologues, staunchly defended "postmodern" against "traditional" values, Guccis duking it out with Wal-Marts, and a talented elite against all too many with significant knowledge deficits? The evidence is clear, but what does it mean about our country, and what should we do?
For much of the last 35 years, and especially during the last decade, the United States has become strikingly more unequal in income and wealth. Median incomes have stagnated since 1973, yet incomes for the top 5 percent have more than doubled. Since 2000, median family incomes have declined by 1 percent, whereas the top 1 percent's incomes have tripled, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The housing collapse, a sour labor market, the resilience of capital markets, and 20 years of tax-law changes have worsened wealth divisions between the rich and former middle class. Most Americans' wealth is in their homes, whose value has withered. By contrast, for the richest 5 percent of Americans, whose wealth is overwhelmingly in financial assets, the yearlong bull market has left them holding 60 percent of the nation's stocks and other securities, with the bottom 50 percent owning just 3 percent. To add insult to injury, since 1992, taxes have been cut by 40 percent for top earners, as the average American's tax burden has fallen by less than 10 percent.
A corollary to economic inequality has been the declining sales of "mid-market" goods. Richard Nixon once said that the Sears catalog was the best answer to communism — a panoply of quality products available to a classless mass of American consumers. Today, Wal-Marts and McDonald's burst with business, as do exclusive boutiques and four-star restaurants. Instead of that classic mid-market American icon, the Chevy, shiny Mercedes and 100,000-mile Ford and Toyota compacts rule today's road.
Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy said, "Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer." He spoke at a time when Republican Dwight Eisenhower supported an expanded welfare state and Democrat Kennedy supported a strong defense and a historic tax cut. Historians view both as middle-of-the-road presidents — more than could be said of today's high-profile, high-decibel political voices, which seem to revel in straying far from the middle. Thirty years ago, states such as California and Texas voted for moderate Democrats and Republicans. Today, politics has become a compromise-free zone.
Similarly, before the culture wars of recent decades, political leaders, the media, and American business and advertisers appealed to an idyllic "Middle America" of moderate, middle-class small-town and suburban dwellers who believed in "traditional" values such as personal responsibility, thrift, respect for others, and modesty. The unifying voice of Life magazine has been supplanted by divisive blogs and cultural self-ghettoization. Just as the middle class and moderate politics have diminished, an America where families and moderate but basic values thrived has retreated. In its wake have come a coastal, metrosexual, multicultural, anything-goes pseudo-liberalism and a counter-tide of uniracial, nonurban, self-righteously intolerant pseudo-conservatism. Although many changes in values have made America more true to its ideals, the middle-of-the-road blend of conservative values that speak to decency and responsibility and liberal values that speak to tolerance and equality are far from the norm.
"Middling" has a pejorative tone, but the idea of the pretty good student or worker was long venerated as a symbol of both widespread American competence and the equalizing success of public education. One-third of high-school students fail to graduate, according to the Gates Foundation, college graduation rates have stagnated since the mid-1970s, and — as any employer or college professor will tell you — the crafting of a sentence or a logical argument often seem to be lost arts. At the same time, a minority of super-brainy students, scientists, entrepreneurs, and others has been cultivated by overweening parents and what Thomas Frank called a "winner-take-all" labor market. Applications to Princeton are up by 91 percent since 2004 and the number of high-school Advanced Placement exam-takers has doubled since 2001. While the fairy dust of grade inflation has made dullards into scholars, the honest, respectable B student of yesteryear is a dying breed.
The decline of "the middle" in America is real and is a dangerous loss to our economy, our politics, our values and our people's capabilities. Specific remedies are elusive, but many thoughtful ideas have already been advanced by people across the political spectrum.
The broad-brush solutions are obvious: We need to foster much greater economic opportunity, instill the importance of a basic, quality education for all, rediscover a politics of compromise and consensus, make and promote affordable quality goods, and sideline values that are not founded on respect, responsibility and tolerance. But we also need to recognize that renewing a vibrant "middle" in America requires thinking of these issues in concert.
Andrew L. Yarrow, vice president and Washington director of Public Agenda, teaches modern U.S. history at American University. He is the author of "Forgive Us Our Debts" and the forthcoming book "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century." His e-mail is email@example.com.