Class Matters: The Not So Hidden Theme of the State of the Union

I anticipated the State of the Union Address, more or less, correctly, though I underestimated Obama’s forthrightness. He entered softly, calling for bi-partisanship, but he followed up with a pretty big stick, strongly arguing for his agenda, including, most spectacularly, the matter of class and class conflict, daring the Republicans to dissent, ending the speech on a high emotional note on gun violence and the need to have a vote on legislation addressing the problem. Before the speech, I wondered how President Obama would balance assertion of his program with reaching out to Republicans. This was an assertive speech.

The script was elegantly crafted, as usual, and beautifully performed, as well. He embodied his authority, with focused political purpose aimed at the middle class. This got me thinking. As a sociologist, I find public middle class talk confusing, though over the years I have worked to understand the politics. I think last night it became clear, both the politics and the sociology.

Obama is seeking to sustain his new governing coalition, with the Democratic majority in the Senate, and the bi-partisan coalition in the House, although he is working to form the coalition more aggressively than I had expected. He is addressing the House through “the people,” with their middle class identities, aspirations and fears.

In my last post, I observed and then suggested:

“Obama’s recent legislative victories included Republican votes on the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling. I believe he will talk about the economy in such a way that he strengthens his capacity to draw upon this new governing coalition. He will do it in the name of the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class. This is the formulation of Obama for ordinary folk, the popular classes, the great bulk of the demos, the people. In this speech and in others, they are the subjects of change, echoing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: government of the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class, by the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class, for the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class.”

Americans in large numbers think of themselves as being middle class, though this is hardly an identity that distinguishes much. The middle class, in the American imagination, ranges from people who barely sustain themselves to people who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, own multiple homes and all the latest consumer trophies. The imagined middle class includes all the workers who earn a living wage in a factory, and the owners of the factory, and the managers and clerks in between. If Marx were alive, he would roll over in his grave. This American sociological imagination seems to be an illusion, a case of false consciousness if there ever was one. The puzzle: “What is the matter with Kansas?

Yet, I think it was quite clear last night that the way the middle class is imagined opens American politics. Both Obama and Marco Rubio (in his Republican response) delivered their messages in the name of the middle class. While Rubio used it to denounce Obama, big government, taxing of the wealthy and spending for the needy, Obama invoked the great middle class to defend and propose programs that clearly serve “the middle class” directly, especially Social Security and Medicare, but also aid to education, infrastructure investments and the development of jobs. The undeserving poor loomed behind Rubio’s middle class, (and made explicit in Rand Paul’s Tea Party response), while those who need some breaks and supports were the base of Obama’s middle class. Thus, the middle class and those aspiring to be in the middle class, as I anticipated, was Obama’s touchstone.

I, along with many progressive friends, have been impatient with all the talk about the middle class over the years. I wondered: where are the poor and the oppressed? In this State of the Union, the President made clear that they are central to his concern: an endangered middle class, both those who have been down so long that they haven’t been able to look up, and those who through recent experience know that they and their children are descending. Obama spoke to both groups, the frightened middle class, working people who have experienced rapid downward mobility, and those who have long been excluded from work that pays sufficiently to live decently.

Obama, using straightforward prose, addressed the members of Congress through this middle class. He advocated for “manufacturing innovation institutes,” for universal high quality pre-schools, strengthening the link between high school education and advanced technical training, addressing the costs and benefits of higher education, and raising the minimum wage. In other words, along with his discussion of Medicare, Social Security and Obamacare, he raised the immediate economic concerns of a broad swath of the American public. Noteworthy is that the concerns of the “aspiring middle class” (i.e. poor folk) were central in his presentation.

And then there was the passion focused on immigration, voting rights and gun violence. The closing crescendo, with Obama calling for a vote from Congress on gun violence, dramatically referred back to Obama’s opening, calling for concerted bi-partisan action on the crises of our time. As I heard it, this was about gun violence and its victims, but also the victims of Congressional inaction on jobs and the economy, on the sequester, on the need to invest in our future, i.e. on pressing issues concerning the middle class and those who aspire to be in the middle class. The closing was powerfully delivered, as the response to the delivery was even more powerful. As Obama takes his message to the country in the coming days, and as Democrats and Republicans start negotiations about the budget, I think that there is a real possibility that the coalition that formed in negotiating the resolution to the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling conflicts may very well lead to necessary action, at least to some degree, and they will be debating about the right things, at last.