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Middle America Will Determine the 2024 Election
Opportunity liberalism means the state provides citizens equality of opportunity and individuals offer grit and labor. Democrats need to recapture this spirit.
Riffraff. The Masses. Hoi Polloi. Working Class. The Silent Majority. The Great Unwashed.
“The People” have many synonyms. But “Middle American” best describes the demographic upon which every national election swings. Legendary Columbia University sociologist Herbert Gans defines Middle Americans as lower middle and working-class families between the thirty-first and seventy-first income percentiles. They are the working stiffs who are average in jobs, income, and schooling; a high school educated clerk or truck driver, of any race—that’s a Middle American. And Democrats have steadily lost them.
A broader grouping than working class, income alone does not define a Middle American. In his 1989 classic, Middle American Individualism, Gans outlined how income and a “popular individualism” renders them a distinct class. Reared in environments of economic insecurity, Middle Americans prize personal economic security more than anything. Their pursuit of economic autonomy is defined by self-reliance and an individualist ethos. These values and sensibilities are key to understanding Middle America’s political behavior.
Politically, Middle Americans support a version of “moral capitalism.” Moral capitalism is not socialism; Middle Americans think free enterprise and rugged individualism are just fine so long as labor receives a fair share. But any system that shortchanges labor loses legitimacy in Middle America and risks populist uprisings.
Moral capitalism was born on the nineteenth century populist frontier, and it subsequently evolved into the organizing principle that held rural and urban Democrats together. Moral capitalism was the philosophical basis of the Populist movement in the 1890s. Rejecting small government orthodoxy, populists looked to the state to make the urban, industrial economic order into a moral political economy. When markets failed, moral capitalists sought state interventions—but ones that reflected their individualist code. Social Security exemplifies this attitude: funded by dedicated payroll taxes, to Middle Americans the program is an earned benefit and not welfare.
Harry S. Truman’s GI Bill and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Medicare program followed the script Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote with Social Security. “Earned benefits,” recipients served in the military or labored a lifetime to merit eligibility. Not coincidentally, these programs are politically sacrosanct with most Middle Americans.
Oxford University historian Gareth Davies calls this underlying bargain “opportunity liberalism.” The state provides citizens equality of opportunity. Individuals offer grit and labor. And Middle Americans rewarded Democrats with votes.
By founding federal activism and social insurance programs on Middle American individualism, opportunity liberals defeated laissez-faire conservatism and created a liberal political consensus. In the late 1960s and 1970s, however, entitlement liberals gained the political upper hand inside Democratic politics and policy circles. Seeking equality of results, they pushed a guaranteed income and single-payer healthcare as well as an array of unearned benefits. Moral capitalism, however, cuts both ways: Middle Americans revolt against economic systems and political ideologies that ignore the bond between labor and economic security. Middle Americans came to distrust a liberalism that, in their eyes, dispensed unearned benefits. To them, it was not a moral capitalism, and many turned right as result.
Middle American was once rightfully synonymous with working-class whites. In 1975, nearly nine of ten Middle Americans were white, and in 1980 and 1984 Ronald Reagan won an average 61 percent of the white working-class vote. Because Middle America comprised two-thirds of the entire electorate, Reagan won in landslides. Post-1965 immigration, however, has remade American and Middle American demography. In 1980, whites were 80 percent of the overall population; today, that number has fallen to 60 percent. Indeed, almost half of today’s Middle Americans are non-white. These demographic changes have transformed American politics.
Bill Clinton combined a rising non-white population with the educated middle class, women, and enough white Middle Americans to win the presidency twice. He did so by emphasizing work and opportunity. In effect, he pushed opportunity liberalism back to the party’s rhetorical center.
Years ago, I interviewed a high-level official from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. To my surprise, this advisor named national service, a proposal that promised college tuition in return for public service, as the issue that elicited the most excitement at town halls or events. This official was puzzled but marveled at the crowd’s reaction to such a wonky idea. Clinton’s opportunity liberalism touched a nerve. It symbolized a form of liberalism that jibed with Middle American sensibilities.
“If you work hard and play by the rules,” Clinton said in 1992, “you'll be rewarded, you'll do a little better next year than you did last year, your kids will do better than you.” A quarter-century later, Barack Obama made it into a mantra as well. In doing so, Obama wooed enough white Middle Americans to twice sweep the upper Midwest—including now-reliably Republican Ohio—and Pennsylvania. But Obama racked up FDR-style margins with downscale non-whites. In 2008, he won 86 percent of this demographic and 80 percent of all non-whites in 2012.
Since that time, this support has slipped. In a campaigns from 2012 to 2020, non-white working-class support for Democrats fell by 18 points. In 2020, moreover, Trump surged with non-college Hispanic voters and even gained six points with black men. A 2023 survey shows Biden winning only 53 percent of non-whites, a near 30-point decline from Obama’s standing in 2012. Most of this decline comes from non-white Middle Americans. Trump’s GOP, meanwhile, has become more of a multiracial and Middle American populist coalition.
Ruy Teixeira, among others, has offered keen observations for this phenomenon. Maximalist activist stances on structural racism, green energy, policing, and transgender issues have hurt Democrats in general—and with Middle Americans in particular. Add to this list proposals for Build Back Better, Medicare-for-All, “free college,” and student debt cancellation, and it’s hard to imagine a better agenda to alienate Middle America. Economic issues can also be social issues, especially when proposals run afoul of the individualist ethos. Entitlement liberalism has once again become synonymous with the Democrats. This is the larger political reality driving Middle Americans away from Democrats and, in enough cases at least, toward the GOP.
Ironically, liberals have antagonized Middle Americans at the very time calls for a moral capitalism should appeal. Since the 1970s, working-class wages have stagnated. For the truly down-scale, real wages have fallen by five percent. Income inequality has reached staggering levels. Compared to 1970, the share of aggregate income taken by upper-income households has almost doubled, from 29 percent to 49 percent. The Great Recession and post-pandemic inflation have only exacerbated these trends. One New Mexico flight attendant captured the sentiment of most Middle Americans: “The mantra has been: Work hard, pay your dues, you’ll be rewarded for that. But the goalposts keep getting moved back.”
These Middle Americans should be Democrats. They aren’t because liberals ignore or belittle their core values.
Rather than understand Middle Americans, however, the intelligentsia lashes out. Thomas Frank cried false consciousness in his 2005 best-seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas. Frank helped popularize a claim that the downscale voted against their interests. Just as popular is the conventional wisdom (at least in academic and activist circles) that white Middle Americans turned right solely due to race. This explanation returned with a vengeance to explain Trumpism. Yet, regardless of its origins, Trumpism today is becoming more of a multiracial Middle American movement. Blaming it almost entirely on false consciousness and racism might help liberals feel morally superior, but it does nothing to win elections. These rationalizations help Trump, and in so doing they endanger democracy.
In 1989, another iconic sociologist, Seymour Martin Lipset, reviewed Gan’s Middle American Individualism. He noted that Middle American individualism was nothing more than classic American individualism to which left-leaning intellectuals had always objected. The intelligentsia so want Americans to embrace group-based solidarity, Scandinavia-style, that they refuse basic realities. “Liberals,” Lipset sighed, “frequently alienate the very people whose support and votes they need.”
Middle Americans are a class unto themselves with a set of dispositions and attitudes distinct from the intelligentsia and educated middle class. They also constitute the majority of the electorate. Democrats need to decide. Do they prefer ideological purity or stopping a Trump presidency? You can’t have both.
Jeff Bloodworth is a professor of history at Gannon University (Erie, PA). Bloodworth holds a Ph.D. in modern United States history from Ohio University’s Contemporary History Institute. (Twitter: @jhueybloodworth)