Being middle class in America used to mean something—something socially transformative, something even revolutionary. The American middle class represented a form of national social order never before seen on this earth—cultural domination not by the very rich and very educated, or the political domination either by tyrants or the mob, but by a mass of people, relatively well-to-do, who felt themselves fortunate in their circumstances. That was what made the American middle class different from the French or English bourgeoisie. Its members believed, and the country believed, that they were the nation’s backbone, its true governing class, and its moral compass.

Throughout most of the 20th century, the term “middle class” signaled membership in an optimistic and growing group, most of whom had risen within memory from physically laborious jobs in farming or on factory floors to offices and small businesses they ran themselves. The middle class had enjoyed long periods of prosperity and stability, and each generation of politicians, on the left and the right, had enthusiastically pandered to it because they were the American majority, and it was from the American majority you could build a political consensus and a political coalition.

What were the core convictions of the American middle class? It valued its freedom and autonomy, was proudly patriotic, involved itself in its local communities, and was churchgoing without being fanatical about it. Its position at the dead center of American life was reflected in mass culture in ways that were both positively reinforcing and widespread. If you turned on any radio program in the 1930s and 1940s or any network television show before the advent of the cable era, you would likely find some benign portrait of the middle-class American nuclear family staring back at you. Providing that kind of mirroring comfort made cultural and financial sense in a country where approximately 61 percent of adults lived in middle-class households.

By the early-21st century, however, the cultural and political power of the middle class had begun to erode—subtly at first, then rapidly. In his memoir of his time working for President Barack Obama, David Axelrod recalled chastising Obama in 2008 for his “clinical and bloodless” discussions of the country’s vast middle and reminded him of its importance to the Democrats’ election prospects. “I talk about the middle class all the time,” Obama peevishly insisted. Axelrod disagreed and advised Obama that he could not merely “sprinkle mentions of the middle class formulaically in speeches,” as he had been doing. He had to wage “a day-in, day-out campaign on the issue.”

It was good advice, as numerous signs at the time of Obama’s successful bid for the presidency were pointing to a downturn in middle-class fortunes—and all this before the financial meltdown of September 2008 that led to a decline of 35 percent in the wealth holdings of Americans. A 2006 report from the Brookings Institution found that “middle-income neighborhoods as a proportion of all metropolitan neighborhoods declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000.”

Even in the suburban neighborhoods favored by the middle class, the proportion of middle-class families shrank to 44 percent in 2000, down from 64 percent in 1970. “Suburban middle-income neighborhoods were replaced in roughly equal measure by low-income and very high-income neighborhoods,” the report concluded. By 2012, a Pew survey found “fully 85 percent of self-described middle-class adults say it is more difficult now than it was a decade ago for middle-class people to maintain their standard of living.”

Still, as late as 2013, Democratic political consultant James Carville and Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg published a book titled It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! in which they congratulated themselves and the Obama campaign for successfully winning reelection on a message of helping the middle class. Their celebration proved short-lived. By 2016, as Pew Research noted in a post-election report, “the Republican Party made deep inroads into America’s middle-class communities.” Pew noted that “although many middle-class areas voted for Barack Obama in 2008, they overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump in 2016, a shift that was a key to his victory” over Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, “Democrats had more success retaining a loose ‘coalition’ of lower-income and upper-income communities.” The middle class was not only shrinking—according to Pew Research Center, “the share of adults who live in middle-class households fell from 61 percent in 1971 to 50 percent in 2021”1—it was also becoming restive.

As Max Weber said, “A class itself is not a community.” The middle class in the U.S. has always been as much an idea as it is a definable socioeconomic category. It has also served as an ideal, a goal to achieve for the working class, which sees in the rung above them on the social ladder wonderful and achievable things like home ownership, a safe neighborhood, and retirement comfortable enough to soothe an aching back garnered from decades of physical labor.

But both the idea and the ideal are under significant threat today, and not only from economic challenges such as inflation, stagnant wages, and higher housing costs. The common understanding of the middle class as the key moderating force in our culture and politics is also disappearing. We know this from the evolution of American mass entertainment. Popular culture has moved away from the values and interests of the middle as well. In Status and Culture, the critic W. David Marx describes how, in the mid-20th century, the middle class “enjoyed its own respectable taste world of Reader’s Digest, bowling clubs, and Lawrence Welk.” Those middle-class tastes and choices were mocked by the elitists of the time; the middle class was said to be living soulless conformist existences in “little boxes made of ticky-tacky,” as the folksinger Malvina Reynolds sang contemptuously in 1962. Efforts to shock the middle class out of its complacency came in the form of supposedly scandalous works like Peyton Place that presumed to show the dark truth behind the manicured lawns of Main Street USA.

Then came the 1960s and the elevation of transgressive behavior and mores. By now, there is almost no middle-class culture to mock. Today, Marx writes, “the twenty-first century economy has skewed media and consumption so decisively toward coastal elites as to be perceived among the lower middle class as a demeaning erasure.”

This erasure is significant because it speaks to thorny issues of status and dignity in a country with long-standing anxieties about class. The middle class found it could no longer rely upon or take pleasure in its creature comforts quite so readily, or find satisfaction in achieving a certain level of social standing. As Paul Fussell observed in his 1983 book, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, “The special hazards attending the class situation in America, where movement appears so fluid and where the prizes seem available to anyone who’s lucky, are disappointment, and, following close on that, envy….The myth conveys the impression that you can readily earn your way upward, [so] disillusionment and bitterness are particularly strong when you find yourself trapped in a class system you’ve been half persuaded isn’t important.”

Fussell notes that poorer Americans “tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have,” but for the middle, markers such as education and the kind of work a person does are profound measures of self-worth as well: “Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style, and behavior are indispensable criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation or education.”

The middle class had as its unstated goals to maintain a decent standard of living for itself and to pass on a stable, good life to their children. Prosperous but self-made, elite-adjacent but not elite themselves, it followed the rules while nurturing a belief in the ability to improve one’s circumstances no matter where you found yourself on the social ladder. Sometimes beset by envy of the wealthy on the one hand, and concern about the burden of supporting the poor on the other, the middle class nevertheless served as a stabilizing force, taming the extremes of wealth and poverty while going about its business as white-collar professionals, small-business owners, and mid-level managers.

In other words, the middle class, despite its anxieties, was supposed to prevent class warfare. Now, it looks more likely to ignite a class war.

Consider the recent cultural and political shifts experienced by the typical middle-class American, shifts dramatic enough to be experienced as whiplash by many of its members. During the Covid pandemic, for example, the majority in the middle was told to listen to elite experts and follow the dictates of the institutions those elites controlled. Most did. But as those same elites mandated harmful business and school closures (while conveniently ignoring such restrictions on their own behavior by dining at the French Laundry, as Governor Gavin Newsom did, or sending their children to private schools that remained open), middle-class Americans watched their children’s educational and emotional well-being suffer as the public schools they attended remained shuttered.

The arbiters of culture increasingly ignore the middle to focus instead on minority groups of every stripe (the smaller and more bizarre the better), or on the tribulations of the luxury consumer. When given attention at all, the middle is treated as a bunch of exotic weirdos, despite still being the majority. Cultural products consumed by the middle—their favorite comedians, music, and television shows—often get only grudging or glancing attention from elite media. Increasingly, television shows depict the very wealthy (Succession, The White Lotus) or the poor or working-class (Dopesick, Maid) more than they do the lives of people in the middle. Richard Rushfield, who runs a Hollywood dope sheet called The Ankler, noted the following recently about a television show you may never have heard of:

Young Sheldon ambles amiably towards its denouement, absolutely unloved by anyone except for TV viewers. You could drive a semi-truck through every media office in New York without hitting an article about Sheldon’s final season. [But it] has sat in the Top 10 of most-watched shows throughout its seven-year run…and had ratings that approach latter-day Oscar numbers. Not only that, but it is the sequel to The Big Bang Theory, which previously dominated the ratings boards from 2007 to 2019. And it was just announced that after Sheldon concludes, it will be followed by another spinoff, centered on brother Georgie, making it likely that by the time that show wraps, the Big Bang universe will have quietly drawn audiences in the many millions for approaching 30 years.

Which is a decent run at a time when people and networks supposedly don’t want middle-of-the-road comedies anymore and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single one of its like across the entire Streaming Wars spectrum. It’s kind of a problem for us to entertain the world if we not only don’t watch what they watch, but we won’t even acknowledge their entertainment exists.

Rather than be catered to by the elites who seek to make their living off their tastes and wants, the middle class is more likely to hear the elite talk about it as a problem: Middle-class Americans are racist, they complain too much about how expensive everything has become, and they won’t get on board either with the left’s social-engineering schemes or the populist right’s rage-driven apocalypticism.

They are told that “no human is illegal” and that their concerns about an open border are evidence of their own bigotry. They see the poor and other designated “oppressed” receive sympathetic elite attention and government subsidies and programs, and services aimed at helping them. The elite champion the rights of criminals, illegal immigrants, and destructive Black Lives Matter activists who want to dismantle the police. They tell the rest of the country that they must call the homeless the “unhoused” and ignore any quality-of-life effects from that population’s drug use or instability. When the middle class complains, the elite often chide it for having fallen prey to “misinformation” or excessive “right-wing” media consumption.

The middle class is also frequently reminded that shoplifting is a victimless crime even as they see prices rise and goods placed behind locked cabinets—or, in many cases, entire stores shuttered after being scavenged for too long by thieves who go unpunished. In January, after coordinated groups of pro-Palestinian protesters shut down traffic to tunnels and bridges in Manhattan, disrupting the lives of millions of New Yorkers, the New York Post noted how many of the protesters were students at elite colleges such as Yale and Brown, whose activities were being lavishly funded by “the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation” as well as “a Rockefeller family foundation.”

On the rare occasions when such protesters are arrested, they are immediately released and often valorized for their law-breaking, as Black Lives Matter protesters were in the summer of 2020 by soon-to-be–Vice President Kamala Harris. She urged the public to donate to the pro-decarceration Minnesota Bail Fund to “help post bail for those protesting on the ground in Minnesota,” many of whom had committed arson, property crimes, and assault; the same fund later secured the release of a man who then murdered someone. As Matthew Crawford observed of these young radicals, many the children of privilege, who have become full-time protesters: “At bottom, we see a refusal of the ruling class to take responsibility for its rule, preferring to [role-play] at the barricades.”

By contrast, it is the middle class that sends its children off to the military to fight wars. The middle class is overrepresented in the ranks of the enlisted compared with upper- and lower-income groups. According to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations, “Most members of the military come from middle-class neighborhoods. The middle three quintiles for household income were overrepresented among enlisted recruits, and the top and bottom quintiles were underrepresented.” They are effectively serving a country that lately has shown little tolerance for their way of life or their values.

Meanwhile, they watch politicians like President Biden transfer the student loan debt of higher-earning Americans to those in the working- and lower-middle class. A 2020 report from the Brookings Institution, using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finance “confirm[s] that upper-income households account for a disproportionate share of student-loan debt—and an even larger share of monthly out-of-pocket student debt payments.”

No wonder they feel like suckers, betrayed and frustrated because things no longer seem to work the way they should. They are being played for suckers.

A savvy politician would appeal to this middle—would make them feel that they matter and are valued. Unfortunately, the incentive structure of our politics has changed so that elected officials now cater to the extremes within their coalition, rather than talking to the moderate middle. Our elites act like Marxists (focusing entirely on either the upper or the lower classes) when they should behave like Weberians—thinking about the stabilizing force of the middle. A recent article in The New Yorker by Evan Osnos is indicative of the trend, examining the many ways the word “elite” has become a pejorative deployed by populist wannabes such as Tucker Carlson to tar their perceived enemies (who are as wealthy and well educated as they are). Amid intra-elite squabbles, the concerns of the middle class receive no attention.

Instead, elite cultural mavens have decided to target the middle for reeducation, so that they might be cured of their backward, racist, homophobic, and transphobic views. Imagine being a mid-level manager at a large corporation. You are middle class but work among the elite-educated top of the economic scale and, as Thorstein Veblen taught, feel their disdain more acutely because of that proximity.

You are subjected to the indignities of diversity, equity, and inclusion training and bureaucratic oversight, and told to be grateful for the opportunity. Typical was the email sent out by the chief diversity officer at Johns Hopkins University. She discussed the “Diversity Word of the Month”—“privilege”—which she defined as “advantages and favors to members of dominant groups at the expense of members of other groups.” Among the list of “privileged” groups she included, were the “middle or owning classes” (as well as the usual suspects: white people, Christians, heterosexuals, the able-bodied). More than 27,000 people have their day jobs at Johns Hopkins. Almost all are middle class. Every one of them got this memo.

As is true of our political class, the incentive structure of the elite has changed. Elites increase their status by virtue-signaling and valorizing the concerns of the supposedly oppressed, and as a result they no longer make a pretense of respecting the values of the vast middle. It is a peculiar new form of class warfare: The elite, claiming to represent the concerns of the poor and oppressed, array themselves against the middle, whom they insist must embrace elite values while they continue to refuse them elite privileges.

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This dynamic plays out most clearly in the realm of education—and nowhere is the resentment of the middle class more justifiable. At the K–12 level, middle-class parents have watched as Democrat-controlled school systems, in the name of “equity,” have eliminated measures of academic merit such as standardized tests and Honors classes that these parents view as crucial to their children’s success. Now, talent and hard work matter less than the pursuit of elite ideological projects, with predictable results for children’s education.

As well, the long-standing path into the upper classes via entry into elite higher-educational institutions has now been effectively blocked for the middle class and their children. They still try to get their children into the best colleges possible, of course—colleges they often can’t afford. But what they fail to realize, and what elite institutions refuse to acknowledge, is that despite having the same grades and qualifications as middle-class children, the children of the wealthy are now twice as likely to be accepted at Ivy-Plus colleges as middle-class kids.

In 2017, the New York Times noted, with surprise, “Students at elite colleges are even richer than experts realized, according to a new study based on millions of anonymous tax filings and tuition records.” The study confirmed that “at 38 colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League—Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown—more students came from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.” Put another way, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attends an elite college.

A more recent study from 2023 from Opportunity Insights also found significant overrepresentation of the wealthiest on elite campuses—and an admissions system that casts itself as an engine of equal opportunity while heavily favoring the richest students. The study notes, “Children from families in the top 1 percent are twice as likely to attend an Ivy-Plus college (Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, and Chicago) as those from middle-class families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.”

The advantage was great enough that the researchers concluded, despite their claims to the contrary, “highly selective private colleges currently amplify the persistence of privilege across generations but could diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of America’s leaders by changing their admissions practices.”

And please, please, please dismiss the arguments of the wealthy elite who benefit from this system and who argue that allowing larger numbers of wealthier children on campuses helps everyone by increasing the resources available to all. While those increased resources from wealthier families might allow for a small additional number of poor students to attend an elite institution than was the case in the past, it is the middle class that is paying the price—by being kept out almost altogether.

As a 2018 American Enterprise Institute report by Jason D. Delisle and Preston Cooper found, “Students from high-income families were a growing share of enrollment at these institutions in the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, the share of students at selective colleges who are from middle-income families has steadily declined over time, particularly students from the third income quartile.” Their conclusion? “The enrollment gains of high-income students in the mid-2000s came at the expense of middle-income students. . . . It is middle-income students, not low-income students, who are becoming less represented on these campuses” (emphasis added). In other words, the middle is disappearing from the very institutions whose gates are designed to allow admission into the American elites, even as low-income student numbers remain steady, and the number of wealthy students increases significantly.

This system affects everyone because elite institutions disproportionately funnel students into the most powerful political and cultural institutions, even as the worldview of graduates from these schools increasingly does not reflect the views of most Americans.

As Opportunity Insights found, “Attending an Ivy-Plus college instead of the average highly selective public flagship institution increases students’ chances of reaching the top 1% of the earnings distribution by 60 percent, nearly doubles their chances of attending an elite graduate school, and triples their chances of working at a prestigious firm.” A 2018 study in the Journal of Expertise explored the pipeline into prestige journalism and found a similar impact: “Only a handful of select schools feed the mastheads of the NYT [New York Times] and the WSJ [Wall Street Journal].” Among staff writers at the Times, for example, 52 percent attended elite schools.

As Rob Henderson notes in his recent memoir, Troubled, “At Yale, more students come from families in the top 1 percent of income than from the bottom 60 percent,” and this class chasm creates peculiar challenges. The moral universe of the elite is different from the rest of the country, and they view these beliefs as important markers of their status. “Today, luxury goods are more accessible than before,” Henderson writes. “This is a problem for the affluent, who still want to broadcast their high social position. But they have come up with a clever solution. The affluent have decoupled social status from goods and reattached it to beliefs.”

What kind of beliefs? One study cited by Henderson reveals, “Upper-class individuals cared more about status and valued it more highly than working-class individuals. . . . Furthermore, compared with lower-status individuals, high-status individuals were more likely to engage in behavior aimed at protecting or enhancing their status.” Henderson coined the phrase “luxury beliefs” to describe some of the things his classmates believed are harmless (defunding the police, decriminalizing drugs, abandoning monogamous marriage) because their privilege protected them from the impact of such choices—even as the poor and middle class suffered from those same policies. Worse, he found many students who suffered from a rather skewed moral compass: “My classmate and I discussed various moral dilemmas,” Henderson writes of a conversation he had at Yale. “And he said he would push a man off a bridge to stop a train from hitting five people. I asked if he would murder his mother to save five strangers. He promptly responded that he would. I doubted anyone I knew outside of college would have said yes to that question.”

And yet, the elite who control our institutions still expect the middle class to yield to their supposed wisdom. This has unexpected political implications.

Economically, the view from the middle reveals a landscape where at least the poor can stitch together all kinds of benefits via government programs, and are considered victims of systemic injustices, thus gaining attention and status in a society that valorizes victimhood. The wealthy have the resources to weather most if not all economic challenges. That leaves the middle class paying full price for most things, and still trying to play by the rules, while feeling as if they are barely getting by—all while being scolded by an elite that tells them they should stop complaining about the price of groceries and gasoline. No wonder a recent ABCNews/Ipsos poll found a steep decline in the number of Americans who still have faith in the American dream of “if you work hard, you’ll get ahead.” Sixty-nine percent said that is no longer true.

These differences in circumstances, education, and worldview have policy implications as well. Polling from RMG Research by Scott Rasmussen recently explored the views of America’s cultural elite (defined as those with a postgraduate degree who earn more than $150,000 a year and live in “high-density” areas). These Americans are “wealthier, more highly educated, and attended the best schools,” and they trust the government “to do the right thing.”

Their views of American principles, however, are starkly different from those of their middle-class fellow citizens: “Nearly six in ten say there is too much individual freedom in America,” for example, double the rate of all Americans. Sixty-seven percent of this group also favors “rationing of vital energy and food sources to combat the threat of climate change,” and “somewhere between half and two-thirds favor banning things like SUVs, gas stoves, air conditioning, and non-essential air travel to protect the environment.” These are the people running our elite political and cultural institutions, and yet they have little understanding of how regular people live their lives, or what they believe, or the things they value.

What, then, is to be done for the middle class?

There are practical steps that can be taken in higher education that would offer immediate relief to the middle class and restore more socioeconomic diversity to elite college campuses. First (and this is already happening), schools from elementary to high school and universities everywhere must restore standardized testing as a vetting mechanism for admission. When higher-education institutions went test-optional and when secondary schools eliminated blind testing, they effectively decoupled merit from admissions for the middle class. Conveniently, they left in place admissions preferences for protected classes of students (such as minorities) and the wealthy (who could still boast more extracurricular activities, private-school résumés, or who could, as a last resort, simply buy their child’s way in via donations). Tests such as the ACT and SAT give middle-class applicants a path into competitive elite educational institutions by demonstrating their ability to succeed. And testing for admission to the best public high schools eliminates the ability of administrators to self-select the student bodies they think are more racially and culturally suitable.

Second, with affirmative action now effectively ended by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s time to end legacy admission preferences as well in higher education. There isn’t even an argument to be made that these preferences do anything other than benefit the wealthy. As schools such as MIT, which does not grant legacy preference, demonstrate, ending legacy preferences leads to a more socioeconomically diverse campus.

Third, it is time to stop giving so many admissions spots to foreign students, many of whom, as we have seen in the wake of the events of October 7, bring to American campuses a toxic brew of radical politics, disdain for American values such as free speech, and anti-Semitism. A survey by Tablet found that up to 25 percent of the students on elite campuses are not American citizens and come here solely to study (paying full freight, and often on the dime of their authoritarian governments). This is a violation of the civic duty of American universities to educate Americans to the highest degree possible. Congress could play a role here by passing legislation that would limit the number of foreign students admitted to colleges and universities that accept federal funding.

Culturally and socially, the challenge is more complicated. But it is not unresolvable: If you want to stop making the middle class feel as if their own country has turned against them, then the arbiters of culture need to stop turning against the middle class. For several years now, corporations and cultural institutions have pandered to elite values—values that, as we have seen, are not shared by most Americans and that have cost many companies the business of the majority. Don’t make the mistake Target did, pushing “tuck-friendly” trans swimsuits and LGBTQ-themed baby clothes to consumers who simply want well-priced goods. Given the state of the culture, the authentically transgressive move (to say nothing of the financially sound move) would be to sell to the vast middle, whose members are largely uninterested in waging a culture war via their infant’s onesies.

Politically, to restore the respect owed the middle class, politicians might find unexpected success by listening not to their cheap sloganeering consultants but rather by following the evidence of their own eyes and pitching their message not to their most extreme (and often online) partisans but to the people who want this country governed with some common sense. From 2015 onward, Donald Trump has had a distorting effect on the national political conversation in myriad ways, but one that is often overlooked is how the “Resistance” that rose to challenge his polarizing behavior then provided cover for the advancement of a more radical progressivism on the left. The left’s embrace of extreme and unpopular views about gender, the border, race, and fossil fuels had unexpected force in part because they were attached to a more traditional Democratic opposition to Trump. But this has also moved their party much further away from the views of the average American voter. If you doubt this, listen to then–Senator Barack Obama talk about America’s need for a secure border; by the standards of today’s progressive left, he would be judged a right-wing nut.

Our politicians need to sell their ideas for improving the country to the majority, to move away from the volatile, dysfunctional way of doing politics that starts from the fringes and moves inward. We do not need leaders who start from the elite premise that this country has too much freedom or from the populist premise that America has descended into an evil that only top-down populist solutions can save us from. Rather, they should be asking how they can ensure that people live good lives and flourish with as little elite interference as possible—including interference by their own government.

These are not partisan proposals. Rather, I am talking about modest steps toward a politics and culture that might once again enjoy greater stability, prosperity, and commonsense wisdom. Embracing middle-class politics is neither exciting nor revolutionary, but at a time of simmering resentments and instability, it may be just the prescription to save the country from its sometimes seemingly incurable ailments.


1 This was, in part, an amazing American success story, because it wasn’t that the middle class became smaller due to becoming poorer. Much of it was the result of middle-class adults moving into higher-income brackets and joining the ranks of the upper-middle class or even the rich.

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