As Middle Class Fades, So Does Use of Term on Campaign Trail
Hillary Rodham Clinton calls them “everyday Americans.” Scott Walker prefers “hard-working taxpayers.” Rand Paul says he speaks for “people who work for the people who own businesses.” Bernie Sanders talks about “ordinary Americans.”
The once ubiquitous term “middle class” has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach.
The move away from “middle class” is the rhetorical result of a critical shift: After three decades of income gains favoring the highest earners and job growth being concentrated at the bottom of the pay scale, the middle has for millions of families become a precarious place to be.
A social stratum that once signified a secure, aspirational lifestyle, with a house in the suburbs, children set to attend college, retirement savings in the bank and, maybe, an occasional trip to Disneyland now connotes fears about falling behind, sociologists, economists and political scientists say.
That unease spilled out during conversations with voters in focus groups convened by Democratic pollsters in recent months.
“The cultural consensus around what it means to be ‘middle class’ — and that has very much been part of the national identity in the United States — is beginning to shift,” said Sarah Elwood, a professor at the University of Washington and an author of a paper about class identity that one Clinton adviser had studied.
Rising costs mean many families whose incomes fall in the middle of the national distribution can no longer afford the trappings of what was once associated with a middle-class lifestyle. That has made the term, political scientists say, lose its resonance.
“We have no collective language for talking about that condition,” Dr. Elwood said.
The result is a presidential campaign in which every candidate desperately wants to appeal to middle-class Americans — broadly defined as working-age households with annual incomes of $35,000 to $100,000 — but does not know how to address them. That has led to some linguistic maneuvering.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, has said what makes America unique are the “millions and millions of people who aren’t rich.” Mr. Sanders, an independent from Vermont who is seeking the Democratic nomination, has talked about “working families” and “people working full time.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican, has made “hard-working men and women across America” the focus of his message.
“It used to be ‘middle class’ represented everyone, actually or in their aspirations, but now it doesn’t feel as attainable,” said David Madland, the managing director of economic policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the Clinton campaign. “You see politicians and others grasping for the right word to talk about a majority of Americans.”