Biden and the Great Middle Class

Former Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa, May 1, 2019 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
He has to preserve a coalition whose members might otherwise see their interests as in direct conflict.

Joe Biden is too old, supposedly. And has no feel for the new intersectional politics of his party. And yet he immediately jumped into the lead.

There’s no doubt that Biden is a throwback. When his hair-sniffing was the important news story of the day, Peggy Noonan said he was a creature of the “fleshy” politics of the 1970s. But what strikes me most about old Joe Biden is that he is a creature of the mid-20th-century Democratic party. And he is the only candidate who took time in his announcement video to praise America’s “great middle class.”

The middle class largely has been abandoned in political rhetoric, and not just by politicians. Americans increasingly make their political claims as members of minority groups, and sometimes as victims. They do this even when they are not recognizably members of a racial minority or particularly victimized. This is true of whites in America now too, who often can find some aspect of their lives that marks them off from the majority of those in power: a disability, a life circumstance, or their religious commitments. Even social conservatives increasingly feel that their political views mark them off as a transgressed minority, and talk about themselves that way. It’s a political style of demanding recognition and rights.

And that is what made Biden’s announcement refreshingly retro. The political identity many Democratic voters felt mattered to them when Biden was coming up was their membership in the middle class. The middle class tended to make its political claims in the terms of just compensation. They liked being flattered as those who “work hard and play by the rules.” This American middle class was a capacious category that conveyed a certain dignity and humility. This class was really not a “middle class” in the traditional sense of the term; it was a class of relatively secure wage-earners, an affluent proletariat. And just as with minority-victim status today, many people who, by all the measures that mattered, fell outside of the middle class tended to identify with it anyway.

Today’s intersectional Left would point out that this “middle class” American identity often excluded black Americans and recent immigrants in disguised ways, and frequently conceived of its interests in ways that were hostile to the interests of these groups. Joe Biden was often a part of these efforts. He opposed busing measures aimed at integrating public-school districts.

But if America’s political middle class sometimes failed to live up to its aspiration that any citizen who works hard and plays by the rules should get the benefit and solicitude of the nation’s institutions, it at least acknowledged that the country itself ought to be a source of strength and pride for its citizens. It still flattered itself as a group committed to fairness. Was it delusional? Sometimes, yes. But delusions can keep a coalition together. And perhaps Biden’s form of delusion matters.

The Democrats are now the party of the most unequal parts of the country. Among whites, the higher up you go on the educational ladder, the more likely you are to vote for Democrats. America’s rising corporate culture, outside of industries with particular regulatory needs, is firmly in the Democratic camp. But the Democrats are also the party of the young, and racial minorities. It is also still true today that gentry liberals try to horde the benefit of America’s institutions, particularly its best schools, for their own children in ways that are more or less designed to protect their self-regard, their view that they are just getting what’s owed to them and theirs.

Some commentators think the Democrats are ready to make dramatic changes to the economic system — to dismantle the structures of economic privilege. I doubt this. When Obama tried to make slight alterations to the privilege of 529 savings accounts, a boutique financial product used almost exclusively by the upwardly mobile, he was swiftly and severely reprimanded by the Democrats’ expanding coalition of suburban gentry voters. The progressive commitment to the abstract equality of social status among groups seems to intensify as its commitment to equality of opportunity weakens.

Biden’s half-conscious effort to portray the Democrats as the party of the middle class, which it isn’t, may be a politically expedient way of keeping together a coalition whose members might otherwise see their interests as in direct conflict. It may be a way of signaling to a crucial set of swing voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that the party isn’t dominated by a set of gentry liberals who tenaciously guard their privilege. But it is.