Even before President Donald Trump’s contorted series of quasi-condemnations, the image of helmeted neo-Nazis squaring off with protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, stood out as a remarkably awful moment in the country’s recent history.
But it was also just the latest sign of mounting stress in an America where political polarization, extremism, and just plain ill will between people of different ideological stripes regularly spills into sporadic violence.
Sure, racist violence is nothing new. And in that sense Charlottesville was just a reboot of America’s long struggle with race, identity and power. But I write about economics. And looking at those young white guys in VICE News Tonight’s footage of the Nazi-style Tiki torchlight parade, I couldn’t help but see Charlottesville as part of the social rot that has set in — particularly among some white men — after a decades-long rise in inequality in the U.S.
“That makes them sort of susceptible to political mobilization along these identity lines, in a way that’s hard to imagine happening in the 1990s, when the economy was rather good,” said Nolan McCarthy, a Princeton University political science professor who has studied the interplay between economic inequality and political polarization. “I think economic growth is very helpful for dampening down these animosities.”
You can debate what definition to use, but it’s fair to question whether the U.S. even qualifies as a “middle class” country after some 40 years of rising income inequality. The share of American households considered middle class tumbled from about 60 percent in 1980 to about 50 percent in 2013, the last year for which comprehensive Federal Reserve data is available.
“Economic growth is very helpful for dampening down these animosities.”
Separate data from the Pew Research Center show that in 2015, the combined number of adults living in rich and poor households, at 121.3 million, outnumbered those in middle-class households: 120.8 million. Back in 1971, the number of Americans in the middle class far exceeded the combined number of rich and poor Americans, by 36 percent, according to Pew.
Some argue the decline of the middle class doesn’t really matter because at least some of that decline is due to people climbing up to the ranks of the richer classes.
But that’s wrong. The middle class is more than just an average of rich people and poor people. The group has unique attributes — such as high rates of investment in education, homeownership, and entrepreneurship — that help make it a key ingredient for healthy economic growth and, more importantly, a healthy democracy.
“We know that in developing countries the middle class has been a very important force in sustaining, you know, pushing for liberal democracy,” said Nancy Birdsall, economist and president emeritus of the Center for Global Development. “You need the middle class to provide a kind of ballast for a stable, open economy and good politics, healthy politics.”
In other words, if politics are like the weather, a big middle class acts like a large body of water, moderating the highs and lows of public opinion.
It’s an old idea. Aristotle argued that a large middle class was a cornerstone of democratic stability and that extreme poverty and wealth risked the rise of either a populist revolution or repressive regimes dominated by the rich. And for decades, the American middle class created by post–World War II prosperity was one of the deepest, broadest forces of stability in world politics.
But by 1980, the dominance of the U.S middle class began to fade. We know the reasons why: a decline in middle-skill jobs driven by trade, outsourcing, de-unionization, and automation that stalled pay increases or vaporized middle-class jobs throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The housing crisis and the Great Recession made a bad situation even worse. As recently as 2014, U.S. median household income was 1 percent lower than where it was in 1989.
And as the U.S. middle class has struggled and inequality has risen, American politics have become increasingly extreme. While more extreme political views have long been known to play better during and after recessions, some of the change seems to be part of a long-term trend of increasing ill will between everyday Americans of different political persuasions.
In 1994, just 21 percent of Republicans held “very unfavorable” views of Democrats. That had risen to 58 percent by 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Likewise, the share of Democrats with “very unfavorable” views of Republicans rose from 17 percent to 55 percent over the same period.
“A shrinking middle class can sort of erode a shared foundation of norms and values that not every, but a large part of, the American public expresses support for,” said Adam Levine, a political science professor at Cornell University.
That said, it’s impossible to prove that the decline of a broad, stability-focused middle class is the cause of increased polarization. The U.S. has had quite a bit going on in recent years.
The election of Barack Obama as the first black president in 2008 underscored the transition of the U.S. from a majority-white to a majority-non-white nation —an event that should occur by 2050. (Research has shown that simply exposing whites to the fact that caucasians are headed toward minority status can trigger negative feelings toward minority groups.)
“This is new, and it’s intense.”
Simultaneously, the emergence of talk radio, partisan cable news outlets like Fox News, and later internet and social media technologies, helped create separate information silos for Americans of different political views.
All of that is occurring against the backdrop (and longtime) trend of Americans clustering in different areas defined largely by lifestyle, culture, education, and economic opportunity. That process, known as the Big Sort, essentially ensures that Americans of different views have lead increasingly separate lives with few opportunities to get to know one another. And it’s a lot easier to hate people you don’t know.
“There have been a bunch of forces that have led to increased polarization,” said Jacob Hacker, a Yale University political science professor who has studied the increase in political polarization in the U.S. “Inequality is one of them. But it probably isn’t the most important.”
Hacker argues that increased polarization owes a lot to the fact that income for the richest Americans has supercharged political spending among that group, especially among politicians.
“Rising inequality has meant that there is more money coming into politics from the top,” Hacker said. “And that money tends often to be associated with conservative economic causes.”
Still, sociologists and economists have found repeatedly, and as recent as last year, that structurally high levels of economic inequality tend to go hand-in-hand with low levels of social trust, while countries with large, healthy middle classes also have better-run institutions and greater levels of political participation.
Of course, there’s a difference between losing trust and carrying out extremist acts such as we saw in Charlottesville — and in D.C. earlier this year when a former Bernie Sanders supporter shot up a Republican congressional baseball practice. There will always be people on the fringe who are susceptible to extremism.
But even so, perhaps the jump from extreme political polarization to hatred isn’t quite as far as we think. Vanderbilt University political science professor Marc Hetherington has found that, increasingly, political polarization among everyday Americans has reached levels that he describes, basically, as hatred.
“This is new, and it’s intense,” said Marc Hetherington, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University who has studied political polarization, at a lecture at the London School of Economics late last year. “The two different sides hate each other.”
Again, it’s hard to say for sure that rising U.S. inequality is responsible for that increase in hatred among Americans — whether it’s hatred of people for their politics or their race or religion. But if we’re interested in trying to save this democracy of ours, it would make sense to prop up the middle class, and tamp down on the hatred, sooner rather than later.