In the Arab world just like in Latin America, the interests of the middle class have led to political change, or political continuity. In the United States, candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have made the argument that they belong to the middle class – yet, less is known about what they would do to benefit the middle class.
The concept of a middle class has eluded precise definition. Academics attempt to measure precise income and purchasing power categories, seeking to find an elusive average person who is definitely not poor, but definitely not rich. While these metrics make categorization simpler, they often rely too heavily on economic indicators. Others attempt to create a more holistic definition, which accounts for education, health, cultural sensitivity, etc. While these definitions are often more encompassing, they create complex and often subjective measures.
Described broadly, a middle class person is one that can satisfy basic livelihood needs through their income, and has remaining educational and financial resources to systematically pursue a higher standard of living.
Two events in recent world history illustrate how a growing middle class can be a force of stability, reinforcing the status quo, or an impetus for change which disrupts the system. The difference in behavior often depends on the political and economic momentum. While the growth of the middle class in various Arab states led to a series of revolutions, during the 2006 Mexican elections, the growth of a middle class ensured the installment of a conservative government.
According to Ibraim Saif of the Carnegie Middle East Center, over the past two decades the middle class in Arab countries faced declining influence and increased economic pressures.
Many people belonging to the middle class saw their fortunes decline as a result of the economic policies pursued since the beginning of 1990. This has led to an increase in the number of poor in a number of countries, from Morocco to Egypt. The improvement in growth levels in Arab countries was not accompanied by income distribution of the type that follows technical standards that could generate employment, meaning that the gap between rich and poor has grown wider while the middle has not increased its share of the wealth in the country.
Such conditions lay the groundwork for revolutions that may have not been exclusively, but were most certainly organized and energized by the Arab middle class. Under different economic circumstances however, the middle class seeks to perpetuate existing policies.
The Woodrow Wilson Center recently released a study examining Mexico’s growing middle class. The study notes that Mexican president Felipe Calderon was able to win the 2006 elections because he understood that Mexico had become a middle class nation. While Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Calderon’s main opponent, sought the support of Mexico’s underprivileged masses (which are by no means negligible), the undecided voters that would determine the election results were primarily middle class. This group had,
bought homes in the years preceding the election; they had credit cards that were nearly maxed out; they understood that their children’s success depended largely on computer skills, high levels of education, and speaking other languages; […] they had cars; they traveled; and they sought to systematically elevate their consumption capacities.
These people found it difficult to identify with Lopez Obrador’s campaign platform, promising to raise taxes on the broadly-defined rich, cut government waste and expand welfare programs. Rather, the middle class chose to support high-business backed Calderon, who promised to maintain many of the policies which had spurred growth, and in many cases helped with the creation of the Mexican middle class.
The lesson the United States can draw from the examples above should be evident. In the face of economic policies that threaten its welfare, the middle class will seek political change. Conversely, the middle class will reward politicians who promise to sustain an economic stability.
The United States has faced a difficult recession. In essence, the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections will be a battle for the middle class vote. There is no other reason why Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a man worth somewhere between $190 and $250 million, would publicly and absurdly include himself in the middle class. Also in the Republican race, and reporting a $3.1 million income for 2010, Newt Gingrich shares Romney’s mystifying belief that he belongs to the middle class.
This is an admittedly curious political and rhetorical tactic. Why would several contestants in the Republican race make nonsensical claims of “middle-class-ness”? The middle class could care less about the income tax bracket of these candidates, so long as they could deliver economic growth for average Americans and provide a quality public education (that ladder of middle class social mobility). Why don’t they talk about that?