Why Conservatives Can’t Think Big About the Middle Class
Recently, in Minnesota, members of Vice President Biden’s Middle-Class Task Force explained how the stimulus bill will create jobs, strengthen the safety net for the unemployed, and raise wages for middle-class families. So what did the local Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a conservative blogger who’s seldom silent about anything, have to say when the national conversation about working people came to her doorstep? Not much.
Bachmann’s lack of response echoes the overall conservative void when it comes to the critical questions of most American’s well-being. Can families attain or hold onto a middle-class standard of living with all that implies: a job capable of supporting a family, a safe and stable home, access to health care, retirement security, time off for illness and major life events, opportunities to save for the future and the ability to provide a good education for their children? Earlier this month, Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, two prominent conservative intellectuals, tried to provide the right with policy answers to those questions and came up with yet another tired variation of the “more markets, less government” mantra that’s dominated our political discourse for several decades.
The middle class arose not from the inexorable workings of the free market, but because of government thinking big—enacting bold policies that, for example, gave veterans a shot at homeownership and a college education, created infrastructure like the federal highway system, and enabled working people to claim the benefits of economic growth. New Deal programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance provided a modicum of protection against old age, disability, and layoffs.
To rescue our middle class today, we need this big thinking again. We’re coming off thirty years of free market ideology in which the economy grew and became more productive, but the living standard of the typical American family didn’t rise in tandem. The middle class was seen as needing and wanting nothing more than a tax cut and the right to be left alone. As a result, working-age middle-class families actually lost economic ground in the most recent boom, missing more than $2,000 in real income. And those were the good times.
The Obama stimulus package is already doing more to boost the middle class than a decade of bromides about the magic of the market. But genuinely rebuilding the middle class will take more than an economic recovery. As the Administration’s Middle-Class Task Force acknowledges, “our policies must create the glue to reconnect the living standards of middle-class families to the economic growth they themselves are creating.” I examine a few of these policies in a “Strengthened Middle Class, an essay in the new book Thinking Big: Progressive Ideas for a New Era.