“Middle-class” seems to me to be a meaningless phrase.
It seems especially so when it is repeated so often in the political speech of the day.
What people think that they mean is some stratification of society based on some combination of income and property, that is wealth. They believe that there is a meaningful distinction because the more wealth one has, they can obtain better services; legal defense, health care, education…. Indeed, in the US that can certainly give the appearance of a class system. That is, leveraging wealth can circumvent our foundational principle of equal protection under the law, that all individuals are the same once they come into contact with the government in its regulatory, enforcement, and police capacities.
But a true class system has some other features. Foremost, in such a system, such a circumvention would be seen as the due of the members of the classes that can pull it off and not as in injustice. No effort would be made to root out such activity, much less to punish it. Another important distinction is that in a class system, members of a class would find it exceptionally difficult to move from one class to another and such efforts would be discouraged. That is not the case in our system, and moving, especially moving up, is, or has been, the expectation and encouraged.
Classical class systems were based on heredity and the rise of commerce, the rise of wealth, started to change that. Wealth could elevate a person from a feudal underclass and even challenge the authority of the aristocratic over class. The origin of the modern notion of class based on wealth, however, has its origin in Marxist philosophy.
Especially within the sphere of US politics, where we are guaranteed equal protection (or are supposed to be), there is only one class. Protections offered to, or penalties imposed upon, one group or another, within our system, regardless of how one draws those lines, is a direct violation of equal protection. Real classes, if we had them, could probably be best illustrated by the French “estates.” We have no aristocracy. The clergy are removed from politics. Attempts to impose class, are attempts to subdivide the Third Estate along arbitrary lines.
Reference to a “middle class” implies the existence of both an over and under class. If we accept this stratification on the lines of income and/or property, we tacitly buy into Marxist theory, not least because labor is deliberately discounted in order to portray anyone whose assets fall primarily into that sphere as a victim, which has the perverse result of empowering that group over the others, which is the basis of the rise in victim mentality.
In contrast, Max Weber’s thinking is more in line with how the US system is supposed to work, and his model admits to the kind of stratification that we perceive and experience in the inequality of outcomes, but he defined class on the basis of skills and education with stratification being minimized by equal opportunity and free markets. So we are still fighting the old Cold War model of Capitalist vs. Communist, but we are doing so in the context of the Marxist terminology–we argue with our tongues tied behind our backs to even accept the terminology offered in the debate.
Indeed, even if the politicians who so love the term are not deliberately referring to old Karl, they are deliberately being cagey. Half of Americans self-identify as being middle-class, however they may understand that undefined term. That of course, is the attraction of the authoritative use of the undefined term–like pornography, you may not be able to define class, but you know it when you see it?
So it comes down to the langauge and how we allow it to be (mis)used. When we accept Marxist definitions, knowingly or not, we must not be surprised by Marxist outcomes. We must also be more demanding of our politicians in how they use the language, requiring deeper explanations.