The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History of Debt, Misery, and the Drift to the Right by David Roediger

Review by Brian Tanguay

Warren Buffet, one of the wealthiest men in America, made a statement in 2006 about class warfare which is often cited on the infrequent occasions when the subject arises. Buffet said that it was his class, the wealthy, who were not only waging class warfare, but winning. It was hard to argue otherwise then, and even harder today. As an advocacy group called the Excessive Wealth Disorder Institute recently estimated, 150,000 Americans, the richest point-one-percent of the population, are sitting on assets worth $15 trillion. Since Buffet declared victory, wealth inequality has surged. 

Most Americans reflexively identify themselves as middle-class, a distinction amplified by advertisers, mainstream media, and politicians of the two political parties. During election campaigns concern for the middle-class — often described as forgotten or long-suffering — is dusted off and solemn promises to save, strengthen, or expand it are made, but invariably actual policies to bolster the middle-class perish  in the legislative graveyard.  

David Roediger’s The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History of Debt, Misery, and the Drift to the Right, was published in 2020 and a second edition with a new Afterword was published this year by Haymarket Books. Roediger came to my attention when I heard him on a podcast talking about how myths about the American middle-class not only restrain political discourse but sideline issues of racial justice and displace more robust discussion of class. Roediger maintains that the United States isn’t now and has hardly ever been a middle-class nation. 

The term “middle-class” entered the American political lexicon roughly a century ago, but didn’t achieve common currency until the Cold War, when the tableau of a broad and deep middle-class was a useful propaganda tool in the ideological battle against communism. Courting the middle-class didn’t become a political obsession until the 1990s, which happened to coincide with a rightward tilt in the Democratic Party. A key architect of this deliberate starboard shift was Stanley Greenberg, a political strategist and pollster, whose work focused on identifying ways to lure Reagan Democrats back into the fold after the electoral setbacks of 1984 and 1988. Greenberg went on to advise senate candidate Joseph Lieberman and Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Roediger describes in some detail how Clinton deployed Greenberg’s ideas and polling analysis to appeal to white working-class voters, mainly by promising to end welfare programs and adopt tough-on-crime policies which, as time would prove, disproportionately impacted poor communities and people of color. 

In my view, the important argument in The Sinking Middle Class is that the term itself is largely an empty signifier because the relationship of most wage earners — white or blue collar — to their employer or manager places them in the working-class. What does middle-class even mean in 2022? The false assumption that America still has a broad, deep middle-class limits political imagination to the narrow center where maintaining the status quo determines both discourse and action. As the Democratic Party left its traditional working-class base behind, and organized labor faltered in the wake of intensifying globalization and concentrated wealth, the notion of workers as entrepreneurs gained traction, and, though their material needs were aligned, workers in offices were divided from workers in factories, often by racial or cultural factors. Labor solidarity suffered one body blow after another as the relentless advance of technologies eliminated millions of jobs, state and federal legal rulings and legislation weakened worker protections, and union affiliation fell to historically low levels. Wage earners have not had a solid perch from which to advocate and agitate for a long time, and even if they had one it’s now difficult to talk about labor and capital without being immediately dismissed as a crazed Marxist, Socialist or Communist. And despite the fact that the majority of American wage earners, white or blue collar, rural or urban, have numerous common economic interests, thorny, intractable issues of race, religion and culture remain. As Nicholas Lemann observed recently in the Nation: “There’s no way to get people to become en masse, impervious to racial and cultural signaling and to focus exclusively instead on their economic interests.”  

Although Roediger doesn’t offer policy fixes, his book makes a useful contribution to our understanding of how for nearly three decades saving the middle-class has preoccupied national political debate, but produced very little in the way of uplift. As The Sinking Middle Class makes painfully clear, the middle layers of the structure of wealth and income have fared abysmally. Bernie Sanders’ two bids for the Democratic presidential nomination stand as the most concrete, deliberate, and comprehensive effort to address the needs and aspirations of working Americans, but one has only to recall the hostility of the party’s response to Sanders to realize that the beneficiaries of the status quo are unwilling to make America’s wage earners a priority. If nothing else, the enthusiasm generated by the Sanders campaigns, particularly among younger Americans, is, perhaps, a sign that a generation more inclined to egalitarian ideas is emerging.