One good way to ruin your Christmas this year would be to spend the holidays reading a new book entitled Abandoned: The Betrayal of the American Middle Class since World War II, by two law professors at the University of South Carolina, William J. Quirk and R. Randall Bridwell. Maybe you don’t want to ruin your Christmas, and that’s understandable, but if you do read the book, you will at least be prepared to understand what is likely to happen to you and to what remains of your country in the coming years.
The reason Abandoned will put ashes in your stocking is that it is one of the first (maybe the first) full-length examinations of how virtually every dominant institution in the United States exploits, defrauds, lies to, oppresses, and endangers the middle class that constitutes the economic and social core of American life. The authors take the reader through the recent history of such financial boondoggles as the New York City fiscal crisis, the national and Third World debts, the social security and savings-and-loan scams, and similar episodes to show how middle-income Americans wind up paying for the irresponsibilities and outright criminality of politicians and business leaders. They move on to the subject of the impenetrability of the political establishment and reveal how both political parties are systematically structured to ignore the interests and wishes of their middle-class constituents and to respond only to well-organized and well-financed lobbies. They examine in depth the emergence in the 1960s of a legal and judicial system that appears to seek out devices by which the values, interests, freedom, and personal security of middle-class Americans can be wrecked. They conclude with a section on the universities of the 1980s, in which “multiculturalists” and “political correctness” cultists contrive to assault and uproot the last vestiges of traditional middle-class culture, ethics, and manners, even as underclass students enjoy enforced privileges of admissions, promotion, grading, and financing, while middle class students and their families are obliged to assume the burden through exorbitantly higher tuitions and endure discrimination against them.
It is true that much of the authors’ information is not especially new; there are large parts of the book that are not at all well-written, and most of it seems to have been proofread by a chimpanzee. Nevertheless, I know of no other recent work that puts the major immediate economic, political, and cultural threats to Middle America in such an informative and comprehensive perspective, and it is precisely that perspective that makes the book and its thesis so frightening. What the authors are chronicling is not merely an irritating “unfairness” and “lower standards of living” but the systematic destruction of a civilization by the elite that rules over it.
The theme of “middle class alienation” is not new either, of course, and indeed it has been a staple of American politics since the campaigns of George Wallace and Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. Nixon essentially swiped it from Wallace and used it to construct the prototype of the “Reagan coalition” of traditional Republicans, white Southerners and Westerners, and Northeastern urban ethnics. This year, after a full generation of conceding the white middle class vote to the Republicans, the Democrats finally tumbled to the idea that they too could pose as the champions of Middle America, and the whole strategy of Gov. Clinton seems to have been based on assuming that posture. This apparent convergence of the two parties toward an essentially conservative Middle American constituency leads various professional conservatives to chirp that the conservative values and interests of Middle America are now triumphant. To their great credit, the authors of Abandoned don’t fall for that one.
One of the points on which they dwell in their chapter on the “Political Abandonment” is that the Republicans long ago figured out how to emit Middle American noises while pursuing policies that trample on Middle American interests. The Republicans as far back as the Nixon administration developed what the authors call the “last vote” theory:
The conservatives had no place to go, they had to vote for you. So give them some rhetoric to keep them happy. Push your real policies for the last vote. Where is the last vote? It is right next to the Democratic position on any issue. So you adopt actual policies which get as close to the Democrats as you possibly can.
This seems to have been the strategy reflected in a remark made by Attorney General-designate John Mitchell in 1968 to an audience of civil rights activists, “Watch what we do, not what we say,” a line that appropriately serves as the epigraph of one of the book’s chapters. Indeed, it seems to have served as the motto of the Republicans themselves ever since. As the authors note,
Since the Republicans have followed the “last vote” theory, the conservatives get rhetoric on emotional issues: pledge of allegiance . . . flag burning . . . abortion . . . forced busing . . . law and order . . . Willie Horton. . . . The actual policies, on the other hand, seek out the “last vote.” Take, for example, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 that President Bush, for 20 months, called a “quota” bill.
Yet the civil rights act that Mr. Bush eventually signed in late 1991 was only marginally different from the one he had been denouncing, and in the campaign just concluded, the President and Mr. Quayle did pretty much the same thing with “family values.” No sooner had they gorged themselves on this cliché at their convention in Houston than Mr. Quayle began to back away from any of the commitments it implied and to boast of how the administration had followed a policy of “non-discrimination” toward homosexuals. The implication of the “conservatives have no other place to go” strategy, of course, is that even committed and serious conservatives (all 10 of them) wind up every four years whining that they have to support the “lesser of two evils.” For some reason it does not occur to them to develop candidates and political mechanisms between elections so that they will not be in the same fix the next time. Why shouldn’t Republican leaders take them for granted?
But neither, also to their great credit, do the authors of Abandoned fall for the current Republican line that the Reagan era was a kind of Garden of Eden for the middle class while denouncing Mr. Bush as the serpent who led us out of paradise. “1988 earnings,” they write, “were below 1968 earnings; they were 17 percent below the 1972 high point. Home ownership, which had risen steadily since the Depression, leveled off in the 1970s and, in the 1980s, declined slightly. The country took on a new look; along the highways there were endless strip malls, discount stores selling goods from Asia and fast-food restaurants. This is the reality of the ‘service economy.’ Jobs, in the new ‘K-Mart economy,’ were low-skill and low-wage.” By the 1990s,
Median family income was also going nowhere despite the great increase of two-salary families. Family income took until 1987 to get back to where it was in 1973. The percentage of adult women working rose from 35.7 percent in 1955 to 56 percent in 1987. The percentage of men working, on the other hand, dropped from 85.4 percent in 1955 to 76.2 percent in 1987.
Citizens have been forced to borrow heavily to maintain their standard of living as real wages dropped. . . . Since the interest rates on all these debts are high, consumer borrowing is now a very heavy interest burden for the American family to pull along. To cover college and other expenses, Americans have been forced to convert their main asset — the equity on their homes — into cash by borrowing against it. In 1990, because of borrowing, U.S. home equity fell by $300 billion, 16 percent of the total.
Moreover, Reagan’s supposed major accomplishment for the economy, the 1986 Tax Reform Act, “took dead aim on the middle class. The promised across-the-board tax reduction was in fact a tax increase for them,” and “basic middle-class deductions — including interest on car loans, credit cards and education loans — were abolished or weakened. A wealthy person could deduct all the interest on two $500,000 homes, but a middle-class person could not deduct the interest on a loan to put his children through college. Also abolished was the ‘two-earner marital deduction,’ most IRAs, the state and local sales tax deduction and the lower rate for capital gains.”
Who did benefit from the 1986 act? Under “transitional rules” ostensibly designed to ease the difficulties of changing over to the new system, the tax reform created “174 special exceptions for corporations including Unocal, Phillips Petroleum, Texaco, Pennzoil, General Motors, Chrysler, Goldman Sachs, Manville, General Mills, Walt Disney, Pan Am, Northwest Airlines, Delta, Control Data, Multimedia and Metromedia. A few foreign Princes rolled up to the trough and got their own transitional rules, including Mitsubishi and Toyota.” For conservatives who believe their mission in life is to defend and protect corporate socialism, the Reagan Era was indeed a Golden Age. For the Real America, it was a tombstone.
Yet, for all of the justified outrage Professors Quirk and Bridwell muster and for all the statistical ammunition with which they arm themselves, there is a serious conceptual gap in Abandoned. For the authors, the norm by which they measure the decline of the middle class today is the post-World War II age of Eisenhower, the era when the United States was the dominant world power and maintained at home a peaceful, prosperous, and highly consensual social order. The Fall, for them, came in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson captured the federal government, expanded its scope and expense far beyond what he had inherited, and recruited “intellectuals” to design, run, and benefit from the Great Society. Prior to that time, the American middle class, the authors believe, was dominant, and its interests, values, economy, and aspirations were the principal concerns of the government, which the middle class or its representatives controlled.
Now the authors are perfectly correct that, compared to the 1990s, the 1950s were indeed a prelapsarian state, and if they had left it at that there would be no more to say. But what they have missed in their sometimes tendentious contrast between the 1950s and the present decade is that the abyss that today yawns before the middle class nucleus of American society began to open long before the 1960s. In their account of the “Legal Abandonment,” a process the authors see as beginning around the time of Louis Brandeis and the emergence of “sociological jurisprudence” in the early twentieth century, they are much more on target, but perhaps they see this historical aspect of “abandonment” more clearly because it is a slice of history more familiar to them as legal scholars.
Yet it was in exactly the same period of the early twentieth century that various changes began to accumulate in American bourgeois society that sowed the seeds of the current dispossession of Middle America. The real “abandonment,” that is, took place generations before the 1960s, in the ideological greenhouse of the Progressive Era and in the structural changes in business, government, and culture that led to the dominance of managerial elites in all three sectors. Professors Quirk and Bridwell place a good deal of emphasis on the “lack of accountability” of tenured professors, judges, and entrenched congressional incumbents as one of the main sources of the abandonment, but it is exactly that absence of accountability that bureaucratization and technical specialization breeds and in fact bred long before the fruit became apparent in the 1960s and later. The Great Society was merely an intensification and a vast expansion of the same kind of social management, therapy, and engineering that originated in the Progressive Era, and the corporations, universities, federal bureaucracies, and mass media that began to develop in that era were the grandparents of Lyndon Johnson’s deformed children.
The reason it is important to understand that the roots of the Abandonment of the 1965-92 era lie in the early twentieth-century revolution in government, business, and cultural organizations is that the middle class itself underwent a revolution at the same time, and what happened to the middle class then helps explain why today it so passively accepts whatever the misruling elite imposes on it. In the nineteenth century, the American middle class was the dominant and formative minority of American civilization because it was an economically and socially independent force, based on privately owned and operated property holdings in the form of farms and family enterprises. The independence it enjoyed enable it to think and do what it wanted and to resist effectively proposals that threatened it. The organizational revolution that spawned massive corporations, government, and cultural institutions in education and the mass media swallowed this independent middle class and converted it into the dependent, passive, well-fed, and well-entertained middle-income proletariat of the 1950s. The major cultural theme of that decade was the new dependence of Middle American life on the structures and mechanisms of the mass organizations and the elites that governed and manipulated these organizations. Television, Hollywood, and advertising were the most obvious instruments of mass cultural manipulation in the 1950s, but they were cut from the same cloth as “The Organization Man” in the mass economy and what Murray Rothbard calls the “Welfare-Warfare State” constructed by Cold War liberalism.
The economic, political, and cultural collapse that gapes before us in the 1990s is indeed the work of the elites of the managerial system, and Professors Quirk and Bridwell are right to document the failings of those elites and call for their expulsion. But the problem is that the middle class proletariat of the 1950s and afterwards that they celebrate is simply not capable of taking action necessary to expel them from power. Having become dependent on the mass structures of the system in the 1950s and having lost its economic, political, psychic, and cultural autonomy, the Middle American Proletariat no longer retains the ability to participate in and lead public life except as a mass of spectators. Its level of political participation has been reduced to watching whatever portions of the national conventions of the two major parties are shown on television every four years and to voting for one of the two candidates that emerges from the shadow play.
To be sure, there are systemic discontents, dislocations, and actual threats to the Middle American Proletariat in the present system, and the analysis of those frustrations is what the authors of Abandoned talk about. But let us not deceive ourselves that this passive proletariat by itself will take any action to retrieve control of the regime that oppresses them. If there is to be any serious change in the leadership and structure of the regime, the Middle American Proletariat can provide the army, but there is no reason to think it can still produce the Pattons and MacArthurs who will be necessary to win its war for survival.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in December 1992.