For many Americans, this Thanksgiving will be one where there is a little less for which to be thankful.
Of course, even in the worst of times, Americans have shown gratitude for what we have. Fewer than one percent of men and women who have ever lived in mankind’s history have enjoyed the freedom and material wealth found today in the USA.
But this is not much comfort to those who are struggling to remain in the middle class and keep the quality of life they expected. While news stories on Thanksgiving tend to focus on the very poor and very generous, a bigger story is the ranks of middle class Americans for whom life is getting harder.
The statistics are astonishing. In New York state alone, a recent study found that 55,000 families dropped out of the middle class between 2007 and 2010. A separate national study found that median middle class income has dropped 5% in the last decade—a stark reversal from the gradual increases most middle class Americans used to expect.
Most telling of all, fewer middle class members think that hard work is the key to getting ahead in life. In other words, they see an America where those who make poor choices are rewarded and those who work hard or innovate are demonized.
This has to be disheartening for the majority of Americans who, contrary to the self-serving presumptions of the political class, are not out looking for “gifts.”
Both parties in Washington are effectively ignoring these people—and it shows. Middle class prosperity has always been founded on good jobs—not wealth transfers via government. Rather than establishing policies to help businesses create these jobs, Washington and the media elite are still more focused on blaming America’s economic malaise on a financial crisis that was resolved long ago. Since then, what should have been a strong economic recovery has instead been a sustained period of lethargy—annual growth well below the 3.4% that has been the postwar average.
On Monday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke had to concede publicly that “the pace of recovery has been slower than [Fed officials] and many others had hoped or anticipated,” and “we have some way to go before the labor market can be deemed healthy again.”
But while everyone in the political class professes concern about economic malaise, they cannot even describe convincingly a path to prosperity for the middle class. Indeed, the biggest problem for many Americans is that their troubles don’t fit into the current agenda of either political party.
The Obama Democrats have demonstrated consistently that they are more interested in remaking America than economic recovery, as evidenced by prioritizing ObamaCare and financial regulation in the past four years. Those economic measures they did attempt—the stimulus and the bailouts—were exercises in Keynesian economics. This brand of government-spending-centered economics failed repeatedly in history. It was discredited resoundingly by events of the 70s and 80s to the point that even Bill Clinton turned his back on the school of thought.
But the Obama Democrats are nothing if not loyal to their orthodoxy—effectively blind to different approaches despite the obvious failure of their own.
For its part, the Beltway GOP is little better. House Speaker John Boehner and his team of country club Republicans have proven inept at explaining and gaining national support for pro-growth economic policies. They can invoke conservatism, but they cannot explain it, nor are they willing to risk much of anything for what they say they believe in.
Cheered on by Beltway eminences like Bill Kristol, the Boehner group is looking for the minimum amount of window-dressing to cover a cave-in on taxes and spending to the Obama Democrats. Their fear of a real political throw-down with Obama is obvious.
It seems that middle class Americans who want jobs and growth—and the prosperity they could bring back—are left without a choice or a voice, either on the left or the right.
This is a shame. Some claim that America has reached a kind of tipping point where we now love the government dole. But a Gallup poll in September found that by a margin of 54-39%, Americans believe government is doing too many things that should be left to business. This is about the same as the poll’s average since 1993. The beliefs and desires of Americans this Thanksgiving are not so different that those of the past.
But many middle class Americans wish they could go back to having a bit more for which to be thankful—or at least the plausible hope for more for themselves or their children. Rather than criticize them, patronize them, or accuse them of losing their way, the political class ought to explain how their hopes can be realized. That just might make the next Thanksgiving a little more bountiful.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).