By John Kendall Hawkins
In the recently released The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History, David Roediger floats the Marxist-driven notion that the American Middle Class is a misery-filled achievement, producing more Bartleby the Scriveners than East up-moving Jeffersons, and is not worth saving. He explores the language of classification and definition used by politicians and the media to promote the false mythos of achievement striation - falsified by the slippery slope of capitalist expendability, and the Sisyphean struggle to maintain a level at great expense to long-term well-being.
Roediger demonstrates that the term Middle Class is not an original designation of the American caste system, but of recent vintage. He writes, "Put forward first by the Democrats, it has debased how we understand social divisions in the United States and sidelined meaningful discussions of justice in both class and racial terms." Bill Clinton was the first to blur the lines between white working class and middle class, he argues, "by standing ever ready to hear white suburban angst regarding affirmative action, welfare, and crime, fashioning flirtations with racism and vague appeals to 'economic' issues as a populism of society's white middle." He suggests an inevitability to the rise of a Trump out of this manipulation.
Obama appointed Joe Biden to head up his Middle Class Task Force and did little with its implied authority. Biden got a free ride this election cycle when the issues were reduced for Democrats to getting Trump out of office at any cost (including electing someone as weak as Biden) and dealing with the Corona pandemic. Biden has come out post-election, not talking about the "Middle Class" and its needs, or of much-needed economic redistribution, but of the uniting fight against the common terror of the pandemic. He'll be there when the vaccines come out and he can play the hero, distributing shots the way Trump did paper towels. Whether "Middle Class Joe" ever shows up is anyone's guess.
Roediger sparks a vision of democratic socialism and invites the reader in for that conversation. It may be a talk that Democrats don't want to have, any more than Republicans, even if both chambers of Congress end up with Democrat majorities as Biden begins his term as president (Obama wasted a similar opportunity in 2009). And Biden may not want to reveal the corporate quid pro quo understandings that paid for his way to the presidency. But Roediger suggests that Corona may hasten the changes required to address long-suffered economic and social inequities, whether anyone is ready for them or not. You can't con a virus.
Roediger teaches American Studies at the University of Kansas. He has a long history of critical thinking and compelling articulation about race and class politics in America. His previous studies include Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All and The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. More information can be had at David Roediger's website.
The following is a recent post-election interview with Roediger:
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