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Stuck In The Middle (Class) With You

The debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney is seen on a TV in a Korean restaurant Oct. 22 in Los Angeles, Calif.
Robyn Beck
AFP/Getty Images
The debate between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney is seen on a TV in a Korean restaurant Oct. 22 in Los Angeles, Calif.

In a country of dreamers and achievers, we seem surprisingly content in the middle.

The term "middle class" is at once useful for political purposes and practically useless as an economic descriptor. Without a consensus on an economic definition, nearly half of the country self-identifies as being in the middle class.

That gives politicians an opportunity to make far-reaching appeals to voters, speaking to Americans with incomes of $30,000 and $100,000 in the same breath.

Matthew Lassiter, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, says both Democrats and Republicans have historically used populist appeals to create coalitions of voters who wouldn't otherwise identify with one another.

In an op-ed forThe New York Times last year, Lassiter wrote about Richard Nixon's use of the term the "great silent majority" in a speech about Vietnam in 1969. Lassiter adds in the op-ed that the Democrats won back the White House with the help of similar rhetoric:

"Bill Clinton promised to listen to the 'quiet, troubled voice of the forgotten middle class,' while Barack Obama said that they had 'a right to be frustrated because they've been ignored.' "

The strategy for both parties, Lassiter tells It's All Politics, is and has been to create "a really broad coalition." The rallying term wasn't always "middle class" — it's been "working families" (Al Gore) or "middle America" (Nixon).

Republicans and Democrats differ in their purpose, and often also in what they believe is "attacking" the middle class, Lassiter says, but the means of attracting votes remains the same.

Why such a focus on the "middle"?

"There's a long historical reason why in a winner-take-all system ... you have to build majority coalitions," Lassiter says. "That really encourages politicians to come up with frameworks that are inclusive."

The expansiveness of the "middle class" can actually make it an inclusive term, rather than a way to distinguish among classes, as sociologists would define them.

Journalist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote a brief history of class for NPR's "Living in the Middle" series. He says classes as we once knew them are gone. Over time, as the lower classes were looked down upon and the upper classes were more sharply criticized, distinctions began to shift, von Hoffman says.

"So there came a time of great wiggling, writhing and squirming as the lower-class people eked their way up to middle-class respectability and the upper-class people slithered down into the camouflage of middle-class anonymity. ...

"So here are the homeless ensconced in the middle class alongside you and me and the no-name millionaires. All together, all equal, all the same (except some are rich and some are broke), all middle-middle and all riven with newfound, demographic distinctions. But that's OK because it's not class, it's demographics, which is very classy."

Economically, narrowing the definition of the middle class isn't even possible. The Census Bureau doesn't have a definition, for example, but it does report that the median income in 2011 was $50,054. (In a Planet Money post, we break down median income by state.)

Americans don't really use that as a marker, though. A Pew report in August showed a gap between what respondents thought it took to be middle class: People whose family incomes were less than $30,000 said it took $40,000; those with incomes of $100,000 and up said it took $100,000.

Overall, 49 percent of adults consider themselves middle class, the study says.

But even that could be an underestimation. People who described themselves as lower-middle class and upper-middle class were combined with the lower- and upper-class categories. The people left are called "middle class."

When President Obama or Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney say "middle class," they're talking to you. And you. Most of us, really. FactCheck.org reiterates that there is no standard definition, even for politicians.

"Each politician may be talking about a different group of Americans, but the message many voters hear is that the politician is talking about them."

As NPR's Alan Greenblatt pointed out after the first presidential debate: "Both candidates were at pains to pay tribute to members of the middle class, again and again."

Both the Democratic and Republican platforms extol the value of this amorphous class, as the Iowa State Daily pointed out in an op-ed about the middle class.

While the platforms talk about middle class in the context of American nonmonetary values — "hard work," "responsibility," "grand dreams" — the candidates themselves have also put forward loose economic definitions of "middle class."

Romney gave his definition of "middle income" in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos in September: "$200,000 to $250,000 and less."

Obama has implied his own definition of "middle class." NPR covered Obama's pitch to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the "middle class" in July. The extension would cover families making less than $250,000.

Of course, neither of those definitions has a minimum income, and they include the vast majority of Americans: Making $250,000 puts you in the 96th percentile, according to The Wall Street Journal's income percentile calculator. The Associated Press has noted that poverty, unlike middle-classness, is technically defined. But poverty hasn't exactly been a campaign buzzword.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.
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