It is widely understood that the American middle class has fuzzy boundaries. Many relatively poor and relatively rich people identify as middle-class. In an ambitious 2008 survey, the Pew Research Center found that an extraordinary 53 percent of Americans described themselves as middle class. Yet it’s also clear that within this diverse, sprawling middle class, there are some households that are better off than others. College-educated households, for example, have largely been spared the scarring effects of unemployment and underwater mortgages. And upper-middle-income households, a group that overlaps fairly closely with the college-educated middle class, have seen fairly healthy improvements in their standard of living in recent years. This is a group that has a great deal, and a great deal to lose.
In recent years, a number of progressive historians and political scientists have been making the case that American political life is dominated by the ultra-rich. The recent obsession with the billionaire Koch brothers is only the most vivid example of this phenomenon. In Winner-Take-All Politics, the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson link the evolution of the U.S. economy from the late 1970s through the present to the rising political influence of the top 1 percent of the income distribution. In their view, key members of this group have actively sought to deregulate the economy, to undermine the power of organized labor, and to advance regressive tax policies. The end result, they argue, has been a policy environment hostile to the interests of the middle class.
Naturally, conservatives will object to Hacker and Pierson’s take on the decades-long effort to free the American economy, which we see as crucial to American prosperity. In the absence of deregulation, the declining influence of organized labor, and a tax policy designed to spur work, conservatives generally believe that the country as a whole, including the working and middle classes, would have fared far worse in a more competitive global economy. Indeed, if there is a social group that has been a barrier to good public policy, one can make a strong case that it isn’t the ultra-rich but the upper middle class, a group we’ll loosely define as households earning between $100,000 and $250,000.
There is no denying that Americans in the top 0.01 percent of the income distribution have more potential for political influence than those earning $150,000. This influence is channeled through campaign donations and also through charitable giving, particularly to nonprofits devoted to shaping the ideological environment. Just as the Koch brothers have donated to various libertarian causes, their opposite numbers at the Ford Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, the Soros Foundations, elite research universities, and countless other lesser-known organizations have devoted themselves to providing intellectual support for the expansion of the welfare state. It is very difficult to tease out which side has had the most cumulative influence over time.