Whither the middle class? Biden, Trump have wildly different ideas about what “middle class” means

As the middle class has shrunk, the two candidates focus on reviving it — with incongruous policy proposals

Published September 25, 2020 6:03PM (EDT)

Foreclosure for sale sign in front of house  (Getty Images)
Foreclosure for sale sign in front of house (Getty Images)

One of the main issues in this fall's presidential election will be how best to revive the middle class, which made up 60% of households in 1971 (as measured by income) but only around half today. That already daunting challenge has become even greater due to the economic turmoil brought by the pandemic.

When Donald Trump ran in 2016, he made clear that his preferred route to increasing the size, prosperity and security of the middle class was essentially a "back-to-the-future" route. Trump's catchphrase, "Make America Great Again," means make the country like it was when he was growing up, during the twenty-five years after World War II.  At that time, the middle class was dominant at home, middle-class men were dominant seemingly everywhere, and the country was dominant abroad. 

Trump's nostalgia for that period (he was born in 1946, the first year of the baby boom) does not, however, stem from having been a member of the rising middle class. His parents were affluent, drove Cadillacs, and sent him to private schools. Trump's enthusiasm for that time seems to be more of a result of his father, Fred, having greatly expanded the family construction business that he had created from scratch in the 1920s by constructing apartment buildings for the families of returning World War II veterans in places like Queens, where the Trumps lived. That virtually all of those tenants (and most of the construction crews) were white and native-born doesn't seem to have bothered Trump's father or his son. As manufacturing jobs left the city for elsewhere, immigration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America grew, and support for ending discrimination based on race and gender did, too, the Trumps — like some of the other residents of Queens — tended to resent and resist those changes.

Trump's seemingly genuine desire to go back to that earlier kind of America has contributed to his fondness for raising barriers to trade and immigration (which were high when he was growing up), as well as his endless pledges to revive basic manufacturing and coal-fired power plants (despite the environmental drawbacks), and the Fifties' family model. But conditions in the country have changed so much since then as to make recreating that life just as it was neither possible – because it would arouse so much resistance – nor desirable, in part because the problems that system created ultimately undermined the process of middle-class expansion.

Joe Biden is of the same generation as Donald Trump, but Biden's approach to reviving the middle class isn't nearly so backward-looking.  Biden, who was born in 1942, rose with the middle class, of which he was a part, over the first thirty years of his life.  And then, just as the middle class began to sink, he narrowly won election to high public office, the U.S. Senate, where his colleagues soon dubbed him "middle-class Joe," a moniker that stuck as ever fewer senators came to fit that description.  Biden's sense of himself has remained rooted in the middle class even as it has steadily declined and his own personal fortunes improved. But the Amtrak-riding, unpretentious Biden, whose biggest single financial asset is his one house (one of the hallmarks of middle-class status), was never in any of his leadership positions able to help reverse the overall trend of middle-class decline, and had to settle for working on ways to mitigate some of its worst effects.

What Biden seems to be after now is one more chance, this time as President, to help turn things around for the middle class, but not in the way Trump wants to. Biden is more attuned to the drawbacks of the post-World-War-II system such as racial segregation, gender-based discrimination, and overly militaristic foreign policies, and how they ultimately combined to destabilize it. He appears to be seeking an updated and more inclusive version of the middle-class life that flourished when he was young, which seems to be a more viable way forward than Trump's because this new and improved vision of a predominantly middle-class America would arouse much less resistance and would likely prove much more durable.

But if Trump's vision seems unworkable because the world he wants to recreate cannot come back just as it was (and wouldn't last if it did), Biden's vision can be faulted for being unrealistic in a different way.  One cannot simply pick the parts of the earlier era of middle-class dominance that one likes and ignore the rest.  For example, Biden spoke at the convention of his desire to increase wages for workers, and to encourage the growth of unions, two things that helped blue-collar people and their families become middle class during the post-World-War-II era.  But doing that will likely require changes in the country's trade policies, lest better-compensated American workers simply invite in more low-wage-based foreign competition.

The most thoughtful and articulate spokesperson for that point of view in the Democratic Party today is probably Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, the leading liberal advocate in Congress for trade policies that encourage employers to treat American workers well, but he made only a low-profile appearance at his party's convention. And Biden, who said nothing about trade policy in his convention speech, has in the past voted for trade deals of the sort that contributed to the middle class's decline.  And so the burden will be on him in the fall to be clearer about where he stands now on the trade issue, and on immigration and taxes, in order to have a chance to win the industrial states in the heartland that will ultimately decide the election.

In fairness to Biden, taking overly clear stands on such controversial issues could divide his party so much as to undermine his electoral chances in a different way.  Biden appears to be hoping that not being Trump will be enough for so many voters as to allow him to keep his stances on the most controversial issues somewhat vague. That strategy worked well for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, when angry voters tossed Herbert Hoover out of the White House for having mishandled the government's response to the Great Depression.  FDR did offer some clues as to where he planned to go, but not so many as to divide his fragile Democratic party base. If history is any guide, Trump's mishandling of the pandemic could offer Biden the same kind of opportunity.

By David Stebenne

Prof. David Stebenne is a specialist in modern American political and legal history, and the author of "Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929-1968," on sale now from Scribner.

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Biden Commentary Economic Stagnation Home Ownership Income Inequality Maga Middle Class Socioeconomics Trump