Biden's middle class in a divided America

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When listening to Mr Biden’s acceptance speech I was reassured by its dignity and inclusiveness. These are surely desirable qualities in what an outsider observer might see as overheated politics.  One phrase, however, I found jarring: ‘I sought this office to restore the soul of America. To rebuild the backbone of the nation — the middle class’. The priority given to the middle class was not new — Biden stressed it in speeches through the primaries and again as a candidate. And it is no doubt important. But when seen in the light of the passionate polarisation of the campaign, the closeness of the results and the continuing mutual antipathy of the supporters of each party, rebuilding the middle class seems an unlikely source of healing.

 President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Chase Center (Getty/Pool)

To this outsider, the source of the rage picked up and encouraged by President Trump in his social media and other communications lies less in the pressure endured by the middle class than in the exclusion from social participation of the working and lower classes. This group included people who had lost manufacturing jobs, lived in neighbourhoods characterised by poverty, lack of services and a high rate of addiction, lacked the education and skills necessary in order to find work in the digital era, and so lived without hope for the future. Their caricatures were captured on the photos of his supporters at protests: filled with rage, sometimes with guns and intimidating. They recalled the ‘mob’ so dreaded by earlier political observers in classical Greece and Rome.

These people, and a growing number of white collar workers, including people from minority cultures whose jobs were also threatened by technological change, were united in anger against the articulate and privileged people with a high education who worked in government and media and profited from the changes in society that disenfranchised others. The latter were seen to have no comprehension of the lives endured by people outside the large cities.

If this account is accurate, Biden’s project of rebuilding and restoring the security of the middle class, while admirable, will not touch the roots of alienation in American society. Indeed, it may only exacerbate it by further excluding people thrust into the underclass.

Any adequate policy must do more than deal with the living conditions of people on the margins of society and rescue those who have been newly excluded. It must also dismantle the engine that excludes, isolates people in self-enclosed circles of poverty or wealth, puts people in thrall to debt, and erodes hope of a decent life. This engine is an economic and cultural framework that produces and intensifies gross inequality. In crises within a radically unequal society ordinary people lose their jobs, homes and self-respect while those with wealth build palaces as the stock market rises.

The cultural root of gross inequality is the identification of human happiness with personal wealth, and the exaltation of competitive individuals who become rich by their own efforts. In this culture, with its glorification of the self-made man, the mutual dependence necessary to sustain economic activity and the social bond that attaches to it either fail to be recognised or are considered inimical to the American way of life.

A moment’s thought reveals how unreal is the ideal of the self-made man who single-handedly profits from his freedom. This ideal denies the reliance of all human beings on parents for existence and early survival, and on other people’s cooperation for education, for security, for roads, for communication, for health and for a financial system.

 

'...the challenge Biden faces is to go into the territory of the people who voted against him and to listen to the stories that underlie the anger and despair felt by so many of them.'

 

But though unreal, it is a powerful ideal. It fuels opposition to government spending on welfare for people who fail to profit from their freedom, to taxes that take from people what they have earned by their own efforts, to regulations that confine the individual’s freedom to profit, and to any view of society that questions whether all individuals can overcome obstacles to success. This ideal celebrates winners and blames losers for their predicament. It can give hope to people who might otherwise see no hope in their lives, and licenses them to channel their discontent into rage at the losers who usurp their rightful place.

Seen from this perspective President Trump was the true believer in the self-made man and its perfect embodiment. He saw and presented himself as the man who could overcome all obstacles to make profitable deal. He saw the United States, too, as the self-made nation, one that could be made great again by breaking free of the constraints of agreements, alliances, regulations, acknowledgment of limitations, and anything else that constrained its freedom to further its own interests.

In appealing to and acting out this American dream Trump attracted and inspired people of all classes whose experience was of constant loss or fear of loss. They could see him as a vicarious winner. They recognised in him their own anger and were inspired by him as they channelled it into rage at the various privileged groups whom they hated. The louder the voices of his critics who replied to and analysed his twitter lines, the more solid became his support. His one liners expressed what they felt, and the angry and analytical response of his critics only confirmed that they didn’t get it. The exchange confirmed their conviction that he could pull down the house and get away with it.

If this analysis is right, the challenge Biden faces is to go into the territory of the people who voted against him and to listen to the stories that demonstrate the anger and despair felt by so many of them. It will then be to address the gross inequality that underlies these stories, by ensuring that people who live in the lower depths have access to medical services and the opportunity for employment, that will enable them to eat, live and raise families decently.

Such a program is a huge challenge. It will incur vicious opposition from the very wealthy and powerful who profit from an unequal and divided America. But will any less do?

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: President-elect Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Chase Center (Getty/Pool)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, US, election, Biden, middle class, working class

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank-you for this very perceptive article. I too was quite surprised, and disappointed, when I heard president elect Biden refer to the "middle class" in this way. I am sure he did not mean them in an exclusive way, but those words could come back to haunt him.
George | 19 November 2020


It appears the Trump monarchy might relapse into a religious and political despotism. The apparent rise in living standards during his reign has been outweighed at the polls by his refusal to take the pandemic seriously and impose Chairman Dan type lock downs. Hence the ascension of Biden. But whether Biden will listen to the working man in America is a moot point. I doubt he will. The American dream is epitomized by the Sinatra song "I did it my way". American politics reminds me of Swifts quote: "I desired that the Senate of Rome might appear before me in one large chamber, and a modern representative, in counterview, in another. The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demi-gods; the other, a knot of pedlars, pick-pockets, highwaymen, and bullies." Trump will of course concede when he has picked the pockets of his faithful clean to recoup his election and spurious court challenge costs, and then withdraw into his bunker to plan for 2024.
Francis Armstrong | 19 November 2020


I think that Joe Biden is doing what all politicians do- addressing selective audiences-to allay concerns by that group that they are not being ignored. The election results showed that Biden won narrowly in three States- Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania- where the educated white female voters supported the Democrats this time where they voted for Trump in 2016. So, Biden was speaking to an audience which is fickle in their voting. As well, although he has a broad view of the world, he has at times to focus on specific segments of the population, to show that he has empathy for their concerns. Thus, while I agree with Father Andrew's opinion, I can see why Biden was being selective in his audience- because that what politicians do- especially after an election- to ensure that they retain that segment's vote in the next election. All politicians play this game.
JOHN WILLIS | 19 November 2020


Another factor may be the actual contempt - not just neglect - shown so often to these marginalised people, whether the unemployed or the working poor. (Hillary Clinton, for example, lost me when she referred to Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables)’. The far left is notable for this. Far from valuing the old liberal Enlightenment principles that underlie work for equality, scientific rigour, freedom, mutual respect and inclusion, they seem to work to divide us into mutually antagonistic categories (victim or oppressor, perhaps). If large numbers of Americans believe a vote for the Democrats is a vote for this kind of philosophy, they’ll feel they have only the Republicans to turn to. I believe they’d be wrong in this, but it will be up to Joe Biden to deal with the very strong loony left if his own party in order to prove otherwise. Thank God Australia is so different....
Joan Seymour | 19 November 2020


Politicians should be defined mostly by actions, not words. With globalisation, workers lost jobs and wages stagnated. Under Trump, Americans had their best wage growth in 40 years, unemployment the lowest in 50 years, and Black and Hispanic unemployment the lowest ever recorded. The ruling classes hated this. Their motto may as well have been—give them minimum wages and video games and porn to pass the time. Walmart employees need food stamps to survive, but Walmart billionaire Christy Walton was the biggest donor to an anti-Trump group. Amazon dropped its meagre $2 Covid pay rise to workers while billionaire owner Jeff Bezos increased his wealth by nearly $80 billion this year alone. Big Tech companies donated heavily to Biden and suppressed negative stories about him, admitting to Congress this week that they coordinated their censorship efforts. In 2009, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have cost New York jobs by blocking Amazon’s entry, but at least she was consistent. Biden’s largest contributor for two decades was credit card issuer MBNA when Biden supported the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Act which made it harder for poor Americans with crippling credit card debts to declare bankruptcy.
Ross Howard | 19 November 2020


We have had four years of Trump to evaluate him. Now Biden is in the hot seat he has four years of his own to show us what he can do. Only time will tell. It's not about rhetoric, but about real runs on the board. We will see.
Edward Fido | 20 November 2020


I think that Andy has, despite his unimpeachable moral intentions, misread Biden's text. The US is not and has never been a society or culture that has accepted, let alone run with an analysis of economic problems that runs along class lines. The problem with that is to seek an explanation that conforms to a somewhat old-hat depiction of a binarial politics that cleaves towards a collectivist Left and a capitalist Right. ES's only correspondent who appears to have picked up on this is Ross Howard. However, even Ross has used his informed dissection of the Trump Presidency to privilege and exalt the Trumpenistas, who have undoubtedly divided the US polity and dealt the instruments of democracy, which are intended to ordain a safe transfer of power from one party to another, a severe blow that will require much critical reflection and action to reform. As a psephologist, my reading of the results indicates that, while the disenfranchised blue-collar workers who have lost their jobs voted overwhelmingly for Trump, as they increasingly do for the Coalition in Australia, what Biden, who is no policy-wonk and doesn't have easy access to an illuminating policy vocabulary, actually meant by 'middle-class' was 'middle-ground'.
Dr Michael FURTADO | 21 November 2020


Biden's "acceptance speech"??? The outcome of the election hasn't been announced officially, as allegations of voting fraud are being investigated. The media say that Biden won, but media isn't the official decider. Voting fraud is serious and is a threat to democracy - regardless of who benefits by it.
Rita | 23 November 2020


'Voting fraud is serious and is a threat to democracy - regardless of who benefits by it.' As indeed are false allegations of voting fraud, as evidence inexorably mounts of voting regularity and attempts to discredit the instrumentalities of statecraft so essential to the preservation and flourishing of democratic fair-play!
Michael Leonard FURTADO | 25 November 2020


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