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Andrea Batista Schlesinger Headshot

Middle Class Isn't Middle Ground

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Senator Clinton went to the Democratic Leadership Council yesterday to talk about the middle class. For too many of our leaders, talking about the middle class somehow means taking the middle ground.

The New York Times writes: "Mrs. Clinton also called for a freeze on raises in Congress and at the White House 'until the incomes of average Americans start to rise again.' She did not, however, go as far down the populist path as other possible presidential candidates, in particular Senator John Edwards, who is focused almost exclusively on poverty as he campaigns in early primary voting states."

According to this logic, "populist" means talking about poverty, contrasted with talking about the plight of America's squeezed middle class, which is a "centrist" endeavor.

I couldn't disagree more. That is the kind of shallow analysis that has divided our politics for far too long between the poor and the middle class. The truth of the matter is that, in a nation in which the very wealthy control almost all of our wealth and in which their agenda is the driving force behind most of the governing party's agenda of tax cuts and power consolidation, we are all in this together.

For a long time, people would give DMI a hard time for using the language "middle class." To us, the equation is simple. If there is no American middle class, there is nothing for the poor to work their way into. If there is no American middle class, our democracy suffers. Most Americans identify as middle class in this decidely optimistic country, and if they would prefer to be reached by their aspirations instead of their fears, that's what we will do. Besides the fact that the middle class is facing skyrocketing costs of everything from health care to gas to child care to higher education while wages stagnate and the very definition of what it means to be middle class is fundamentally changing, and with that, what it means to be American.

But middle class doesn't equal middle ground. Advocating for the middle class isn't inherently some kind of political compromise or centrist bargain, ala the Democratic Leadership Council. Raising the minimum wage is a middle class issue. Progressive immigration policy is a middle class issue. Reining in the power of industries to dictate our economic, energy, and health care policies is a middle class issue. Sound trade policy is a middle class issue. Just because you're talking about the middle class doesn't mean that your policy initiatives must consist only of tax credits and deductions that apply to a narrow income range. Advocating for the strengthening and expansion of our middle class shouldn't just be political code for "I'm inoffensive." It should mean that you're willing to do whatever it takes to create the economic policy that will directly benefit the overwhelming majority of Americans.

Senator Clinton should know this. She was one of the few who received an A on DMI's annual Congressional Scorecard, "Congress at the Midterm: Their 2005 Middle Class Record." She knows that voting against the dismantling of our civil justice system, the privatization of our Social Security system, and The Energy Bill, Inc. is bad for America's middle class. So say it! It's not like it was easy to get an A - Senator Obama got a C, after all.

A few months ago I was on a panel with a very well-respected economist, Peter Orszag, who runs the Brookings Institution "Hamilton Project." In affiliation with Bob Rubin, this group is a centrist's dream. Orszag talked about how middle-ground and compromise proposals build "credibility." Credibility from whom? It was clear to me that he meant the conservative right. I can't help thinking that it's more important to build credibility with America's middle class than it is the right-wing (nor do I think Grover Norquist is somewhere thinking, "how can I demonstrate my ability to compromise with Democrats in order to build public opinion?"). When Peter suggested that reforming the credentialling process for teachers as a "big picture" idea, I could barely remain in my seat. How about a fundamental reform of our public school system so that it isn't entirely dependent upon the property tax value of individual localities, which perpetuates vast inequality?

Here's my bottom line: there is no more populist concern than speaking to America's current and aspiring middle class. But just because we're talking about the American Dream doesn't mean we have to put everyone to sleep.