AN AMERICAN VIEW

Beware the defenders of the middle class

Politicians who profess concern for ‘good people’ show disdain for those who fail tests of color, origin, income and outlook

FRED BRUNING February 10 1992
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Beware the defenders of the middle class

Politicians who profess concern for ‘good people’ show disdain for those who fail tests of color, origin, income and outlook

FRED BRUNING February 10 1992

Beware the defenders of the middle class

Politicians who profess concern for ‘good people’ show disdain for those who fail tests of color, origin, income and outlook

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

Our politicians have scanned the huge expanse of national need and determined, in time for the great U.S. election campaign of 1992, that they

will pledge themselves to resuscitation of the middle class. This is brave stuff. This is inspirational leadership. This is bold initiative. This is a joke.

No doubt the middle class has taken a beating lately, insofar as all Americans have taken a beating lately. Ronald Reagan asked the nation if things were better after four years of Jimmy Carter and, resoundingly, the nation replied that things were not. Now, what do we have, compliments of the Gipper and his successor? Layoffs, empty storefronts, plant closings, unemployment lines, homeless people trudging through the streets like some forlorn and vanquished army.

We have a President who took months to discover, or admit, that the recession was real. We have auto executives who insist that their products beat anything from abroad, though no one believes that anymore. Accordingly, we are treated to a new round of Japan-bashing— the Japanese taking their place as this year’s designated public enemy. Saddam Hussein may yet make a return engagement—The New York Times reported that the White House is considering a covert plan to oust the hated Iraqi kingpin so he does not prove an impediment to the re-election of George Bush—but for now, the Japanese serve the purpose. Are we better off than before? Kinder and gentler? Still number 1?

Stop, already.

When the politically ambitious—Democratic or Republican—start braying about the middle class, it’s a sure bet someone is about to be fleeced. Conveniently, the very term “middle class” has an all-purpose quality well-suited to the art of doublespeak. Income or attitude, that is the question. If you make $50,000 a year, but attend cockfights and favor full-body tattoos,

Fred Brumng is a writer with Newsday in New York.

are you middle class? If you live in a suburban split-level, read Proust and Shakespeare, but can’t any longer cover the mortgage, where does that leave you?

In the United States, most folks want to think of themselves as part of the mighty mainstream—modest enough to recall their origins, solvent enough to order pizza on Friday nights and maybe catch the late show at the local Cineplex. Millions of us qualify for membership in this club, the Grand Exalted Society of Americans More or Less Getting By, but there are plenty whose bank accounts are entirely too robust for consideration and a frightening number of citizens disqualified on account of being flat broke.

Poverty is the point. Americans are suspicious of wealth, but they are deathly afraid of the poor. They fear seeing themselves in those hardened faces, spotting their own sons and daughters on welfare lines, dealing with elderly parents who lack money for decent nursing homes. Enough of the Puritan ethic prevails for Americans often to judge their indigent brothers and sisters somehow unfit—or else wouldn’t the least among us be instead among the most? Onto the poor we transfer our grief and terror and suspicions and failures. We

allow our prejudices to roil and rage. Do politicians know this? Does the President eat pork rinds?

So there now is a tremendous crush to let the “middle class” know who its friends are. Democratic candidates are busily assuring the electorate that theirs is the party of the future. Health care, job security, better schools, child development, welfare reform—Vote Democratic! Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, battered lately by tabloid accounts of alleged marital infidelity, lists among his character strengths a belief in capital punishment. And—what do you know?—similarly disposed are Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and former senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Voters who pick their Democrats carefully, then, can look forward to decent medical coverage for themselves and death therapy for the criminally undesirable. Oh, Brave New World.

Meanwhile, our President claims that the good old United States does, in fact, have a place in his scheme for global perfection and proves the point by extolling a tax cut for— precisely!—the embattled middle class. On other middle-class matters, Bush is equally ardent. Like his Democratic opponents, the commander-in-chief professes concern for education, the youth of America, unemployment, and is well-known for endorsing the rehabilitation of social misfits by means of the noose. Vote Bush!

Candidates of both parties ostensibly address legitimate concerns, but it is impossible to shake the suspicion that they are practising political cryptology—that by lavishing attention on the “good people” of America, contestants are signalling disdain for those who fail essential tests of color, origin, income and outlook. Watch out when the candidate thunders about crackdowns on public assistance and overseas competition. This is not policy but perfidy, sad and familiar.

History affirms that a slick operator can win votes by winking at the electorate and employing the dialect of deceit. A wily salesman can dazzle the suckers by juking and jiving in the accepted mode—by vowing, in so many words, to return the country to its rightful owners and pointedly ignoring those on the lower slope of society’s bell curve.

In modern times, the Republican party has made significant progress through clever application of the aforementioned hustle. No wonder Democrats have decided to try their luck. Touring New Hampshire prior to the nation’s first primary on Feb. 18, opposition hopefuls salute the middle class at every whistle-stop. One hears from these intrepid Democrats quite a bit regarding capital gains and lower taxes, and not much about suffering in the lost regions of our society. The only idea is to play it safe.

Calls for compassion are out of style. Voters these days are “tired of the homeless, tired of poor people,” Robert Borosage of the Institute for Policy Studies told The New York Times. Voters are tired, candidates are tired, the President is tired, and, in a way, the country is tired, too. So sleep tight, those with beds and blankets. All others please observe silence so decent folks can get some rest.