Class, politics and the undifferentiated middle

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The middle class must occupy a privileged position in Canadian politics. Appeals to middle-class voters are a part of every party platform.

The Harper Conservatives talk about hard-working Canadians. The NDP likes middle-class working families. Recently, Justin Trudeau made middle-class Canadians the centrepiece of his victorious campaign for the Liberal leadership.

In Cold War America, calling everyone middle class allowed academics to avoid class analysis with its social divisions along economic lines, and its Marxist origins. In Europe, not only did sociologists divide society into workers and employers, each group had several of its own political parties.

Listing Canadians on a scale from richest to poorest allows us to picture middle income, use it as a surrogate for middle class, and at the same time, avoid class analysis. Calling the middle 60 per cent on such a scale middle class, leaves room for the upper 20 per cent to be considered wealthy or rich, and the lower 20 per cent to be either poor or destitute.

The middle 60 per cent also constitute a political majority, not a small matter when it comes to electoral politics. Analysis predicts lower-income voter turnout to be quite low. Win lots of middle-income votes, and you win elections.

In the political mind, middle class represent an audience, not a dubious analytical category. Carleton economist Frances Woolley points to survey data showing that (like Americans) over 30 per cent of Canadians self-identify as upper middle class, just as over 30 per cent see themselves as lower middle class, and another 30 per cent say they are working class. Hennessy's Index shows 56 per cent identifying as middle class (19 per cent say lower, and 18 upper middle class).

Figuring out how to engage middle-income voters and get them to the polls preoccupies all parties. Conservatives, New Democrats, Liberals, the Bloc, and Greens all want the middle-income vote, and try to differentiate themselves from each other in securing its support.

In immediate postwar Canada, for 30 years, the economy grew, and there was a ladder to the middle, or higher, for some children of low-income families. In those more optimistic times, on average about 80 per cent turned out to vote in federal elections. The top 20 per cent mattered, but not as much as successfully courting the middle 60 per cent.

In the past 30 years, middle income stagnated and social mobility declined. Voter turnout dropped to the 60 per cent range. Appealing to the top 40 per cent and wannabes become a winning strategy for Conservatives like Mike Harris or Stephen Harper, and Blue Grits like Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and it appears, Justin Trudeau. Political disengagement made right-wing gains possible.

Political marketing techniques suggest that citizens are consumers of political goods and services. That makes parties sellers. Political language aims at packaging dreams and stories of a better future. The emphasis then falls on leaders, because they make the pitch for the party.

For at least three decades, social analysis has been pointing to the disappearing middle, more properly the worsening circumstances for more people. The growth in income inequalities has displaced the postwar story about ladders and upward mobility. Disproportionate gains have been made by upper-income earners, the top ten per cent, one percent, and even one-tenth of one per cent.

Making political gains based on arguments around economic inequalities or lessening future prospects is attractive, but elusive. It is difficult to address inequalities without getting specific about policy options. Such discussions, however important, are difficult to make interesting. It remains true that the politics around the fractured middle-income strata are too important too ignore.

Despite being invoked with regularity, the Canadian middle class does not represent anything like a coherent political force: it is too divided. Real differences in outlook and interest exist between women and men; Anglophones and Francophones; different religious communities; provinces, and regions; and urban, suburban and rural citizens.

What needs to be brought forward is the intergenerational story. Many, many younger Canadians face unemployment or have precarious work and poor incomes. Students have middle-class debt levels and doubtful employment prospects.

Inadequate pensions keep middle aged, middle-income people working well into their "golden years." Sorting out how governments can fund students throughout post-secondary education, and provide income security for retirement are big questions, and leaving it to the marketplace is not going to provide satisfactory answers.

Unlocking the economic power of rising workplace incomes and increased public investment would permit a better balance between investment in young Canadians and provision for later life.

Electoral success requires building alliances among different social groups. Putting together an alliance of younger and older around the theme of social solidarity between generations makes more sense than talking to an undifferentiated middle-income strata.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: SMN/flickr

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