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In the UK the phrase "middle class" refers to a large proportion of the population who, broadly speaking, earn more money than they need to pay rent and bills, clothe themselves, eat food etc. There are of course many many subcategories and the terminology itself is slightly outdated now but about 75% of people currently label themselves as middle class.

A British politician could never stand on a platform saying they wanted to support the middle class specifically as this would be tantamount to saying that they didn't care about 25% of the country who are poor and/or working class people and this would be political suicide.

However, in US political speech, I can hardly hear a politician speak without their espousing their love of the middle class. For example the title of this US presidential website is "A better bargain for the middle class".

What does "middle class" mean in this context in the US and why don't Americans also hear this as a callous disregard for the poorest sections of society?


There have been some interesting answers but I feel they are at least partially missing the point. It is also true that in the UK if you could get 75% of people to vote for you you would be very happy. However, in the UK if you explicitly said "We are the party of the middle class", not even many people who were middle class would find this attractive. I wonder if in American "middle class" means hard working or something similar rather than really being a class description?

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    (1) Your question is based on the ridiculous assumption that economy and politics is a zero sum game and that somehow being "for" middle class means you're "against" (or "don't care about") poor; (2) Leaving that aside, championing the case of 75% of population over 25% seems like a lot less of a political suicide than championing the case of 25% over the 75%, unless I don't quite understand how voting works in a democracy. – user4012 Nov 20 '14 at 17:12
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    Two separate questions here. 1) What does "middle class" mean in America and 2) does this imply disregard for the poor? Pick one question. – Avi Nov 20 '14 at 17:21
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    I have to say, watching US political debates as an Englishman I've noticed the same thing as you, that they seem to focus primarily on the middle-class while in the UK politicians don't focus on any particular group. Having said that, the US and UK have many differences in how they carry out political campaigns, so this is probably just one of those differences. Being outsiders means we apply a different perspective to the subject. – PointlessSpike Nov 21 '14 at 14:26
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    @DVK - I think you're mistaken because although yes, as per your point (1) Obviously one can be "for" middle class without being "against" the poor, in politics how the voters perceive you matters. And a lot of voters do seem to fall for the assumption that it is a zero sum game even when it isn't. And (at least in some countries a substantial percentage of) middle class people genuinely care for the poor, so don't look kindly on politicians who seem to be ignoring the poor. – nnnnnn Nov 22 '14 at 13:47
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    Interesting question, but I think that if you're not satisfied by the answers given, it is because you already know the right answer: indeed in the US, "middle class" means "hard working" while "lower class" has a clear pejorative connotation of "people who don't want to work, who live off state's aid, food stamps, or petty criminality". – Joël Dec 20 '16 at 5:06
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The claim to "support" the middle class is to say they will have economic/social policies that keep those in the middle class from falling lower and to help lower class move up. (Their policies invariably do just the opposite, IMO.)

There is a widespread feeling that the middle class is disappearing and their standing is being eroded from under their feet. The cause and solution is different depending on world view/political party.

Republicans generally believe the middle class is being taxed into poverty to subsidize the poor.

Democrats tend to believe that the rich are running monopolies with the intention of turning us all into below living wage slaves.

Libertarians would say we're being taxed into poverty by a parasitic state.

So to claim to "support" the middle class is to identify with one of these views and try to use it for political gain.

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    Cynical to the extreme. Bravo! +1 – user4012 Nov 21 '14 at 19:53
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    If the middle class is disappearing, what is it becoming instead? – Lembik Nov 22 '14 at 21:18
  • @Lembik, I meant they're becoming lower class. It probably be said clearer; it's bad prose and too figurative, but I can't think of a better way to say it. – Tyler Nov 22 '14 at 22:41
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    Rather, I meant that the feeling is that they are becoming lower class. I don't generally care too much about looking up the data to test the opinion of the public. The opinion is what matters in politics anyway. – Tyler Nov 22 '14 at 22:50
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In the US in particular, most people believe that they are middle class, even if they're not (by most definitions). That poll breaks it down into five categories:

  • Only two percent of people identified as upper class.

  • A larger chunk claim to be upper-middle (13%).

  • Self-identifying middle-classers make up 42%,

  • Working class is an additional 31%.

  • Only 10% of the population claim to be lower class.

However, politicians don't talk about five categories, they talk about three: upper, middle, and lower. This has taken on the connotation of rich/okay/poor in national discussions.

So if you take a broad definition of "middle class" as the three middle classes (upper-middle don't think of themselves as rich, working don't think of themselves as poor), then you can appeal to about 88% of the population. That's a big demographic to target, and it's no wonder they focus so much on it.

The two main parties have done a fair job of splitting up the remaining classes, with one side having the appearance of caring for lower more, and the other for upper, but in reality, that only really matters if they aren't getting the larger share of "the middle class".

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  • I understand why you would want to aim for middle class voters but I find it amazing that it is so explicitly stated that this is the only class the politicians care about. – Lembik Nov 20 '14 at 20:07
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    But it's not explicitly stated that way at all. One side also likes to talk about helping "job creators" (upper class) creates opportunities for lower-to-middle class individuals. The other says that caring for the lower classes explicitly helps the middle class (by giving them more disposable income to spend at shops, etc). You hear more speech targeted to the middle class because more people identify with it, but it's by no means the only target. – Geobits Nov 20 '14 at 20:13
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    OK so this is another interesting difference. It wouldn't work in the UK to suggest that being middle class is good and being working class is bad and that your aim is to help working class people become middle class. Many working class people live in working class towns and are of that class from generations back. They don't want to be told that they are worth less as people. – Lembik Nov 20 '14 at 20:24
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    Working class people in the US more generally identify themselves with middle class already, not poor. So they wouldn't feel insulted by this, since it's not targeting them. Basically everyone could agree that middle is better than lower, though, since that effectively does mean poor. – Geobits Nov 20 '14 at 20:26
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    @Lembik "Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class" by Owen Jones – user45891 Nov 21 '14 at 15:31
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There are two broader themes that shape American love for the middle-class.

The first is the American dream and the Protestant work ethic. Americans generally believe in the just world hypothesis, meaning people get what they deserve. In this worldview, people are poor because they are lazy or otherwise immoral. This obviously creates negative attitudes toward the poor, and creates a strong incentive for folks who are fairly poor not to think of themselves as such.

The other is that America had a heyday of a large and prosperous middle class in the mid-20th century, and Americans miss this era. Republicans like President Trump evoke this with slogans like "Make America Great Again", and Democrats like Elizabeth Warren also evoke this legacy and emphasize the growth of economic inequality over the last few decades.

Basically, Americans are suspicious of the moral worth of both the rich and the poor, and are hesitant of politicians too closely associated with either. Similarly, Americans don't consider themselves to belong to either of these groups, even if statistics might label them otherwise. Therefore, when politicians claim to support the middle class, Americans hear themselves, even if the actual effects of policies have substantially different impacts on above average and below average earners.

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Income inequality is a popular political theme with the Democratic Party these days, who are pushing the message that the wealthiest 10% are getting all of the benefits of the economic recovery, while everyone else has stagnant or falling wages. A faction of the Republican Party is pushing austerity budgets, including cuts to social programs that are popular with the middle class, such as Social Security (government-funded retirement pension) and Medicare (government-funded retirement health insurance). The Republicans are also trying to pass tax cuts, which mostly benefit the wealthy immediately, at the same time they are pushing austerity on the spending side. (The Republicans justify these tax cuts as stimulus to the economy that will foster growth that will benefit everyone).

So the Democrats are portraying the Republicans as the party of the rich, and themselves as the party of everyone else, middle class and poor. The truly impoverished do have a safety net in place already, with social welfare payments, food allowances and government-provided health insurance. There are also many popular stereotypes that depict the recipients of government assistance as lazy, entitled, etc., so it is politically risky to campaign for programs that benefit only the poor. Most politicians will not repeat these stereotypes in public, but they are popularized by talk radio, social media, etc. Since the middle class comprise the majority of eligible voters, the Democratic Party has been targeting them in its message, while continuing to preserve and enhance the programs that target the poor.

The Republicans will counter this with the message that they are not indifferent to the poor -- they want to enable growth to create more jobs that will end the "cycle of dependence" that the poor are trapped in, as well as benefiting the middle class.

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    Typically the phrase is the wealthiest "1%" not 10%. – Affable Geek Nov 20 '14 at 18:05
  • Yes, the 1% is most frequently vilified, but the benefits of the recovery have been mostly going to the top 10%. – jalynn2 Nov 20 '14 at 18:09
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In addition to many of the things others have said (such as the fact that the middle class composes a huge part of the population), the middle class is one of the primary drivers of the economy. It is the middle class' disposable income that fuels consumption, and this consumption fuels the need for labor and capital investment, and all this activity results in more profits for the wealthy and more taxes for the government.

When you have a declining middle class, you wind up with reduced spending. Reduced spending means less revenue and profits. Less revenue and profits means less employment. Less employment means less tax revenue for the government and more public assistance hand outs.

So it is actually vital for the economy that the middle class doesn't slip into poverty, because the middle class is who buys things. With no one to buy things, there are no profits, no jobs and no taxes collected. The poor can't afford non-essential items, and the rich don't spend enough to keep the entire economy afloat by themselves. It is the middle class that drives the economy.

In addition to the political benefits of tailoring your political message to a majority of the voters, it is important economically for the middle class to remain strong, for everyone's sake.

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