Wooing the middle-class voter

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With all the strength and stridency his office demanded of him, the second coming of Pierre Elliot Trudeau – specifically, his eldest son Justin, a la the “just society” of three decades ago – importuned the assembled Liberal faithful at the Party’s conference this past weekend to embrace and fully engage the Canadian middle class. 

And that immediately raised a question: Which middle class?

Just as the charismatic Grit leader bemoaned the fact that “middle-class Canadians struggle to balance their cheque books” a formerly confidential government report (made public through an Access to Information request by Canadian Press) resonantly declared that “the Canadian dream is a myth more than a reality.”

In fact, its conclusions “point to a middle class that isn’t growing in the marketplace, is increasingly indebted though it has a relatively modest standard of living, and is less likely to move to higher income (i.e., the middle class is no springboard to higher incomes).”

Other findings include:

“Over 1993-2007, there has been a slight hollowing out of the middle class, and the face of the middle class has changed considerably. Couples without young children and unattached individuals now account for most middle-class families.”

Meanwhile, “although middle-income families experienced a good progression in after-tax income, the same cannot be said of their earnings. In particular, the wages of middle-income workers have stagnate.”

Then, there’s that whole golden-goose phenomenon in which, it seems, the more money you manage to earn today, the more likely you will continue to comfortably line your pockets in the future.

“Although the middle class holds a relatively fair share of the ‘wealth pie’, higher-income families have far greater nest eggs,” the report observes. “Furthermore, wealth is not equally divided among middle-income families, with those headed by younger individuals being at a disadvantage.”

Finally, middle earners in this country are spendthrifts who burn through more than they bring in, “mortgaging their futures” with cheap and easy credit “to sustain their current consumption.”

Under the circumstances, it only make senses that all three major federal parties are obsessed with the middle class; with its welfare, its return to strength, its re-invigoration. After all, the storied bourgeoisie made this country what it is today?

Well, didn’t it?

“My priority is the Canadians who built this country: the middle class, not the political class,” thunders Mr. Trudeau in one recent ad.

Adds his nemesis, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, “Today, our country faces levels of income inequality not seen since the Great Depression, and the middle class is struggling like never before. Middle-class wages are consistently on the decline. Yet the Conservative solution is to demand even more from you and to leave even less to our children and our grandchildren.”

Poppy-cock, the Tories rejoin. They remain singularly fixated on the condition of Canadian “families” to which they say they are committed with their “low-tax plan and measures to help sustain a higher quality of life for hard-working Canadians.”

Of course, the problem with all of this is that, these days, just about everyone calls himself a member of the middle class. So, targeting the message, at least politically, is getting trickier.

One member of your audience may draw a salary of $40,000 a year and another, $80,000. Technically, they both qualify for membership in the middle class (a membership that, increasingly, promises few privileges).

But their experiences and circumstances – their very diversity thanks to decades of neo-liberal and neo-conservative attacks on government protections, prudent market regulation and labour unions – have rendered them utterly unalike.

While one toils at a boutique design studio that offers full-time hours and pretty good benefits, the other owns a craft shop and pays through the nose for private health insurance. The former is a wobbly centre-right Conservative; the latter is a raging lefty with a bone to pick.

To whom do Messrs. Trudeau, Mulcair and Harper address themselves when they go stumping about the country squawking about the  struggling wage earner of moderate means?

The middle class is no longer the monolithically predictable, ideologically stable voting block it once was. Those in office who entertain hopes of remaining their would do well to remember that.

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