The Outstater: Ben Franklin’s Defense of the Middle Class

March 9, 2016

THE MIDDLE CLASS is in the news. Analysts say it is ignored by Republicans and misread by Democrats. It is thought to be the critical factor in winning the 2016 presidential election. Good.

What is meant by the term, however, is less than flattering. It seems to be code for average, undistinguished, perhaps even low informational — not exactly Zombie-like but that is the useful image.

Anyone who has spent any time in Indianapolis or Washington has come across individuals there who think of themselves as being at the top of some pyramid of social Darwinism. The rest of us were too mediocre to make the climb.

There is an exception that proves the rule. Dan Quayle was a pretty normal middle-class guy who somehow found himself near the top of the pyramid. His popularity dived, though, when he took a consultant’s advice to start making fun of himself.

Quayle, you will remember, was ridiculed on the Eastern Seaboard as an utterly average politician from an utterly average state. Making fun of himself was supposed to take the sting out of the bumpkin characterization, to make people forget about his editing of Billy Figueroa’s “potato” at the Muñoz Rivera Elementary School spelling bee.

But they weren’t making fun of Quayle; they were making fun of us, of middle Americans. We expected our man to stand up for us. He didn’t. Indeed, he never came back to live among the neighbors and friends who had sent him to Washington precisely because he represented them so well. Today, he couldn’t be elected mayor of Huntington.

Shakespeare knew all about this. It’s the stuff of tragic theater. To leave it at that, though, would be to miss the greatness of Indiana, of America.

Ben Franklin, the most practical of politicians, got it. Franklin, noting that nowhere else in the world were the industrious poor so well clothed and well paid, described America as a place where “a general happy mediocrity prevails.”

The British historian Paul Johnson dedicated a chapter of his American history to that thought. “America,” he wrote, “is a country specifically created by and for ordinary men and women, where the system of government was deliberately designed to interfere in their lives as little as possible.”

Reviewing the last 100 years, or even the last 10 years, government has done little else but interfere in the lives of ordinary men and women. We are the ones left to struggle with payroll taxes, inscrutable government forms, ObamaCare, unmitigated immigration, impossible college tuitions, unfunded Social Security and so forth.

One man’s intrusion, though, is another man’s policy initiative, but the political class is too thickheaded to make the distinction. Not so much so, however, that it does not see that the ordinary have now awoken to politics — and in threatening numbers as evident in the Trump and Sanders campaigns.

But like the upstairs residents of Downton Abby, they don’t have any idea how to deal with our kind of people. Their little bells no longer ring. Ask Mitt Romney.

Johnson, writing in the 1990s, thought it was significant that he had heard so little about the political preferences of the great mass of Americans. “That testifies by its eloquent silence to the success of the republican experiment,” he waxed optimistic.

Well, so much for that. Grab your torches and pitchforks and head for the polls.

— Craig Ladwig, editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review


Leave a Reply