How Long Will the GOP Continue to Shrink the Middle Class Rather than Grow It?
Republicans always work against middle class people, worsen poverty, and direct all their efforts and opportunities toward the top 10 percent (and, particularly, the top 1 percent) of Americans
A middle class, when mishandled, can be a powerful and fearsome thing, as the rulers of Iran and Russia are discovering. Both regimes are now teetering on the edge of collapse because of popular uprisings that would not have happened without a middle-class in each country.
People paralyzed by grinding poverty rarely revolt — it takes a lot to produce “barrio uprisings” — because their lives are consumed with day-to-day survival issues.
But when people are prosperous enough that they’ve left behind the most severe economic insecurity — believing they’ll always find another home, job, or can get into another university — they begin to demand a responsive government and will rise in protest when it fails to meet their demands.
Republicans have been warning about this since the 1950s, although not in the way you may think.
While President Franklin D. Roosevelt started America on the path to becoming the first nation in the history of the world to see over half its citizens in the middle class, conservative thought leaders have been warning their politicians about the danger of an “over-large and over-prosperous” middle class.
This explains why Republican actions always work against middle class people, worsen poverty, and redirect all their efforts and opportunities toward the top 10 percent (and, particularly, the top 1 percent) of Americans. It explains why Red states remain mired in poverty, crime, and have the shortest life-spans in America.
Way back in 1953 Russell Kirk published The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Quoting at length from 18th century British conservative Edmund Burke, who famously warned that if “hairdressers and candle-makers” were allowed to vote it would do “violence” to a nation, Kirk argued that modern America was on the verge of collapse because of the very middle class that FDR had created by raising taxes on the rich and legalizing unions.
If the middle class got too large — at that time it was not yet half of America — Kirk and followers of his work said:
*Working people would cease to fear their bosses;
*Women would no longer bend their knees to their husbands;
*Young people would ignore or resist authority;
*Middle class people would disruptively demand a better quality of life;
*And minorities would demand an equal place at the table with whites.
Kirk was largely ignored by mainstream Republicans when he was writing in the 1950s (although Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley found his work inspiring and transformational).
But the 1960s changed everything:
*The 1961 introduction of the birth control pill kicked off “Women’s Liberation”;
*The 1965 war in Vietnam produced massive nationwide student protests;
*The Civil Rights movement was in full flower (and cities were burning in response to police killings of unarmed Black people and the assassination of MLK);
*Prosperity was so widespread that only 28% of 18-29 year-olds lived with their parents in the 1960s.
*And working class people were joining unions so frequently that their wages were actually growing faster than CEO salaries.
It shocked American conservatives the way today’s protests by largely middle-class women in Iran are shocking the mullahs.
Something had to be done about the fact that over 60 percent of Americans had the security of a middle-class lifestyle. People with factory jobs were buying vacation homes, visiting Europe on retirement pensions, and sending their children to college without debt.
And — horrors of horrors — these same working-class people wanted the government to keep those high tax rates in place to pay for middle class benefits like good schools, free college, public roads and transportation, Social Security and Medicare, and a generous social safety net program (LBJ’s “War on Poverty” and “Great Society”) to reduce poverty and give poor people a leg up into that growing middle class.
Suddenly Kirk looked like a prophet, and the Republican Party — rejecting the moderation and union support of Dwight D. Eisenhower — fully embraced Kirk’s imperative to cut the “bloated” middle class down to size.
Their standard bearer in this mission was a B-movie actor, Ronald Reagan, who was charming, handsome, and — most important of all — could easily memorize the lines he was given.
The year John F. Kennedy was assassinated fully 78 percent of Americans “trusted government to do the right thing” for this country. The top income tax rate on the morbidly rich was 91%, over 50% on corporations, and regulatory agencies were looking into workplace safety, pollution, and worker’s rights.
Unions were growing and college was so cheap as to be free in most of America. Within a few years women would receive full financial and workplace rights, and minorities were appearing in the workplace and the media.
All the “government interference” in the “free market” that was growing this “culturally dangerous” middle class was intolerable to America’s oligarchs: something had to be done!
So Fred Koch’s John Birch Society and other rightwing groups re-calibrated their efforts away from “fighting the communist threat” to fighting the middle class threat.
Over the next decade — as rightwing billionaires and fossil fuel barons funded literally hundreds of think tanks, policy groups, and publications all saying that government was evil and dangerous — public trust in government collapsed to around 34% by the late 1970s.
Their propaganda campaign about “jackbooted thugs” in the IRS, overreaching regulatory agencies, and corrupt union bosses was working.
Following that script, Reagan cut the top tax rate on the morbidly rich from 74% to 27%, filled the corporate tax rate with loopholes, gutted regulatory agencies, tried to kill the EPA (through the corrupt efforts of Neil Gorsuch’s mother), and declared open warfare on the unions who represented about a third of American workers.
The conservative effort to cut the American middle class down to size has, so far, succeeded beyond their wildest dreams:
*In the 42 years since Reagan won the 1980 election, the American middle class has collapsed from almost two-thirds to fewer than half of us.
*Unions now represent only about 6% of workers in the private sector.
*Middle class college debt represents almost as much — $2 trillion — as Trump’s single 2017 tax gift to billionaires.
*Fully 52% of people 18-29 years old are now living with their parents.
*Housing costs have gone from an average of 2.2 times the average annual salary to over 10 times worker’s average income.
*Three men now own more wealth than the bottom half of Americans.
*The reliably Republican top 10% of Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined.
Republican-controlled Red states now wallow in poverty — dragging the entire country down — and the GOP is doing everything possible at the national level to bring down Blue states as well.
And now Senator Rick Scott has a plan to kill off Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid within five years that is widely endorsed across the GOP.
With this wind under their wings, Republicans are doubling down with a batch of candidates for the 2022 midterms who not only want to cut more taxes, gut more regulatory agencies, and kill more unions, but are openly saying they won’t even respect the will of voters in the 2024 presidential election if given positions of power this fall.
The net effect of all these policies that Republicans advocate, from tax cuts to gutting unions to allowing political bribery by corporations, is to further impoverish working class people and cause more and more to fall out of the middle class.
Just since 1980, Republican tax cuts have produced a transfer of over $50 trillion in wealth from the middle-class to the top 1%.
Every step that further impoverishes and indebts the middle class decreases the chances that they will rise up against their bosses, right-wing media, the Republican Party, or the billionaires who own them.
Will Republicans succeed at indebting and frightening enough Americans to continue blocking progressive demands for taxes on the morbidly rich to pay for social programs?
How many more years can they get away with keeping the middle-class shrinking rather than growing?
Will their NASCAR and Country Music branding — and white supremacist terror campaigns against racial, gender, and religious minorities — be enough to make white Republican- and swing-voters forget that the GOP only truly serves the wealthy and giant corporations?
Stay tuned: we’ll find out on November 8th.