The obvious answer to that question is that they’re the group who are neither rich nor poor but are sandwiched in between those two, a kind of stabilizing alternative to which the poor or “working class” can aspire to rise to and a safety net for those who have lost greater wealth so they need not fall all the way into poverty. We like to believe a middle class is essential to a democracy because it is they who make up the bulk of a prosperous and supposedly well-educated majority capable of making the kinds of decisions a well-ordered republic requires.
But what is the purpose of such a class beyond the maintenance of a national myth of political rule by a rational majority? Other cultures speak of a bourgeoisie, or more properly a petite bourgeoisie. To Marxists the former is likely to be synonymous with “capitalists,” the class we in American associate with the upper class, the latter with our own middle class. But other societies are also more class-conscious than our own, even rigidly so. Our way of ranking our population is much less fixed, open to free movement certainly in the economic sense and to a much larger extent than other societies in the social sense too.
The original idea of who deserves to be in the ruling, i.e. the bulk, of the voting class was seen in a very different way by the framers of our constitution than it is today. Back then it was exclusively free white landholding men. Today it is any citizen, rich or poor or in-between. But has the function of that voting class, mostly middle-class, changed from the one it served for Madison and Hamilton? And what is its function, if it has any beyond just a sociological and economic designation?
I see historical evidence that shows the purpose of a middle class like our own is crucial to maintaining a buffer between those who hold most of the nation’s wealth and those who possess very little of it. Without such a class the so-called one percent would have to rely upon brute force to keep in line and protect themselves from the so-called lower classes. With the disintegration of our middle class we can see a tendency toward more and more oppressive rule with the militarization of the police and with incarceration on a scale not practiced by any other nation on earth – a lurch toward a new feudalism.
The fact that the police and other governmental agencies obviously protect the privileges of the middle class does not mean they are not there ultimately to protect the interests of the upper class. It’s a function the middle class has performed wherever it has been constituted and allowed to prosper, not just in America. Consider the situation in the slave states of the Caribbean. Without a substantial white population to rely on to keep the large slave population in line, the ruling class had to resort to creating a middle class out of free blacks to serve as a buffer between themselves and those in chains. This is why West Indians tend to be better educated and more self-confident than our own African Americans. More than two hundred years ago Black West Indian men were already receiving the kinds of educations and professional opportunities we have not yet provided for our own descendants of slavery. Even West Indian women could become solid members of the middle class by opening shops and other small businesses.
A similar effort was made in the South to form a buffer, middle class of European-Americans between landowners and African-American indentured servants after the two had repeatedly combined forces against their owners. Only, promises of freedom, land and “whiteness” made to rebellious European-Americans in exchange for their acting as police to previous comrades of African and mixed descent never fully materialized, consigning them permanently to a landless state of poverty with only their “whiteness” to console them. Even so, they remained faithful to their new “race,” protecting their previous masters’ interests as if those interests were their own.
Almost a century ago Walter Lippmann published a well-thought-out book about the American political scene in which he concludes that public opinion – by which he meant the opinion of those that vote – needed to be carefully manipulated by those with the best understanding of what was best for the nation. The possibility of such manipulation, though not new, was at the time greatly enhanced by the advent of the public relations/advertising industry that had just come into its own during the Wilson WWI administration. “Manufacturing consent” has since became part and parcel of how the powerful elite have co-opted the middle class into accepting their, the elite’s, political agenda. Until recently no oppressive security force was required to effect this control as it has been in other nations. The media does the job virtually without coercion from outside, automatically.
The result has been a perfect pas de deux between upper-class moneyed interests and middle-class willingness to serve their masters as long as they are themselves guaranteed a comfortable living standard and access to unlimited upward mobility. If this requires the impoverishment of one-sixth of the population who typically don’t vote in the same percentages as their betters, that’s a trade-off the guilt for which can be ameliorated by token welfare policies or simply by blaming the victims.