Nicholas Kristof And The ‘Middle Class’

In a confessional op-ed about why he and others in the media missed the Trump phenomenon, Nicholas Kristof writes this howler (boldface mine):

We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. “The media has been out of touch with these Americans,” Curry notes.

Media elites rightly talk about our insufficient racial, ethnic and gender diversity, but we also lack economic diversity. We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.

Here’s a visual aid to help with the boldface part:


Even by Manhattan or D.C. cost-of-living standards, most pundits–not junior beat reporters–do not “inhabit a middle-class world.” At worst, they live in the upper end of an upper-middle class world, and many are gentry class–and aspire to be part of that class (Got Vox?).

Here’s what I mean by gentry class:

They’re not middle-class (whether it be the upper or lower reaches), since they can live very differently from (or, perhaps, better than) most of us. They can have most of the nice things. At the same time, they’re not wealthy or flat-out rich: if they don’t work, they can fall down the ladder, sometimes very quickly. Living comfortably or well with the interest on investments isn’t an option.

The reason I refer to this group as the gentry is, in part, it’s the group that’s responsible for gentrification in urban areas (no gentry, no gentrification), so it seems to fit. The other reason is to intentionally invoke the Victorian notion of the word. The gentry, whether it be a more religious, conservative style, or a more liberal, less traditional style, definitely has specific class interests (boldface mine):

Yet the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people….

Another thing that separates the upper middle class from the truly wealthy is that even though they’re comfortable, they’re less able to take the threat of tax increases or benefit cuts in stride. Take away the mortgage interest deduction from a Koch brother and he’ll barely notice. Take it away from a two-earner couple living in an expensive suburb and you’ll have a fight on your hands. So the upper middle class often uses its political muscle to foil the fondest wishes of egalitarian liberals.

…part of my objection is that upper-middle-income voters only oppose tax hikes on themselves. They are generally fine with raising taxes on people richer than themselves, including taxes on the investments that rich people make in new products, services, and businesses. I find that both annoyingly self-serving and destructive. The bigger reason, however, is that upper-middle-class people don’t just use their political muscle to keep their taxes low. They also use it to make life more expensive for everyone else.

…You’d almost get the impression that while working- and lower-middle-class people are expected to compete, whether with the Ubers of the world or with Chinese manufacturing workers or with immigrants with modest skills, members of the upper middle class ought to be immune.

Leaving aside Salam’s conservative take on things (very different from the Mad Biologist!), he’s on to something, though I would argue what Salam calls upper-middle class is actually a gentry, with very clear economic interests. While there can be cultural and regional disagreements, en masse, they are quite coherent.

Too often, when the chattering class does talk about economic status, they treat it as if it were a medical condition or public health status, not a form of identity, every bit as important as ethnicity or religion:

This identity leads people to rule out–or desperately try to ignore–certain problems…. An well-to-do person will generate a lot of cognitive dissonance if she blames her class’ economic activities and livelihoods for her city’s devastating problems. If we ignore that, we will miss many of the necessary solutions to truly integrating our cities.

It’s worse that just ignoring or missing problems, this class divide can lead to willful ignorance specifically designed to intentionally miss the problem.

The problem is much deeper than poor political prognostication.

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1 Response to Nicholas Kristof And The ‘Middle Class’

  1. The moment the title starts with “Nicholas Kristof” I know it’s going to turn up as some In-the-Bubble Insanity. 🙂

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