Offering an opinion of a definition of "middle class" America is like explaining what's going on in an inkblot: the answer will say a great deal about you and little to nothing about the object. Mitt Romney stated that he worried about tax cuts for "middle income" who make between $200,000 and $250,000 a year. Median income for the U.S. is $50,000, according to the Census Bureau, but a median is not an average, and an average is not a wide percentage. According to Market Place, the conservatively-tinged market show on NPR syndicates, there really is no data for the middle class.
Conservatives say that "90% of Americans believe they are middle class" (widely stated, but I saw it in an L.A. Times op/ed), while Gallup indicated only 66% did. However many are mistaken, many are mistaken, from an economic point of view. If the income of the U.S. were divided into thirds, then 66% could not be in the middle 33%, much less 90%. Further, there is the question of mid-way in the range of incomes or numerically half-way up or down versus in the middle of the people earning a wage.
The very concept, "middle class," is bankrupt, as it derives from a very primitive analysis of economies, where there were aristocrats, artisans, and peasants (upper, middle, lower). It lodges in our brains from elementary school or high school history books, not descriptors of American society. The nearest it has come to reality is the U.K., where it was intended merely to describe a collection of professions.
Otherwise, we call the middle class the bourgeoisie, who, as Tom Lehrer said, just keep rising. (The triumphant, teleological history of the 20th century always explained that phenomena occurred because of the "rising bourgeoisie," no matter when.) The problem is that American middle classes have never fit the profile of town folks, burghers -- self-satisfied, patrons of good causes, and stiff morality. The American middle class is typified by Babbitt, and that tells us much. Sinclair Lews got to the scene of the accident first in many respects, and he was the first one to describe an American type in Elmer Gantry. So, too, with Babbitt.
The American middle class engages in ostentatious display like European courtiers, and the class has a faith in progress made visible, demonstrated by material advance. More, though, "middle class" in America, even more than other nations, is not an economic fact. It is a behavior. Anyone may be middle class, at any level of income, by simply behaving according to middle class codes and believing as the middle class does. It is an inverted ideology, where the belief about the self's position in production creates the position in production. It is like swimming without water: the gesture takes priority over the environment.
Louis Althusser is no particular hero of mine, but his definition of ideology as "the representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals with the real conditions of their existence" is an important advance over the more literal understandings of older Marxists who saw it as a stamp on the hand or an uniform that each worker donned. Althusser allows Marxists to speak of what was otherwise obvious: in some places (more as the late capitalist model moves), people create their class from their beliefs rather than have it created by an obvious and delineated economic position. A person's class is not a person's income -- especially not in places where legal and explicit signifiers of class are gone -- nor a person's profession, but, rather, a person's habits, which derive from, presumably, the inner person.
If there are no signs saying, "No blacks or Jews," and if there are no laws saying, "No tradesman may wear a sword," then how does a person know from birth, or from upbringing, what class she belongs to? She isn't going to be told by the outside markers, and in the U.S. the "ideological state apparatus" (bleh!), in the form of school curricula and print and television, discourages any talk of class at all. "The United States has no classes, and any poor Black child can grow up to be Famous Amos," the encountered narratives will say (pay no attention to the patronizing tone in the NYT article).
"Axiome: la haine du bourgeois est le commencement de la vertu." -- Gustave Flaubert, The Dictionary of Received OpinionWhen I was a teenager, I hated the bourgeois, alright. I was a punk rock musician, and the only thread that united Talking Heads with The Dead Kennedys was a hatred of corporations and corporate control of music. We hated the predictable and the averaged -- the averaged emotional response robbed of its highs and lows, the averaged aesthetic that would neither shock nor provoke, the averaged learning that would perpetuate itself under a banner of pragmatism, the averaged religious that kicked out the mystical and the fundamentalist in favor of the nice.
However, all the authors I read for inspiration were just as mad as I was and yet were, just as much as I was, the children of the middle class. In fact, it was a criticism punks wielded against themselves as an accusation and which the outsiders wielded against them (and which the old folks had used against the folkies, and which the factory bosses used against the leftists who organized in the 1920's, and which the ministers used against the late 19th century reformers). In other words, realizing that hating the middle class is a marker of the middle class's children is not a realization of hypocrisy. It should be something else.
Do the children of the wealthy grow up hating the values of their parents? Do they grow up wanting to get rid of etiquette, "culture," dialect, and codes of dress they grew up with? Do the children of the poor do so? Do the various Wallingford Horsetooth III's of the world shy away from saying who their parents were or where?
The rich in America are measured by wealth. There are hyper-wealthy prospectors, hyper-wealthy shop keepers, hyper-wealthy stock players, hyper-wealthy bankers, hyper-wealthy inventors, etc., and they were born wealthy, middling, and (sometimes, but rarely) poor. They do not live in one place nor speak in one way. They have some common concerns, but only some. However, they know that they are wealthy and are conscious of the restrictions this places upon their identity. The poor, too, are measured by wealth. America's races have come dangerously close to classes, but "poor" is spread out across the nation, across professions.
The middle class, though, is not marked by anything except a set of beliefs about itself. These beliefs, for their part, are not conscious stipulations of political ideology, but apolitical ideology. The middle class's values: Smart? Not too! Crass? Not too! Tolerant? Some! Generous? Realistically! Art? Understandable! Religion? Sometimes! Politics? Ain't it a shame!
When a person answers a pollster with "middle class," the person is not saying that he is unaware of his salary, but saying, "I'm normal. I don't stick out. I have nothing extreme." Further, it is a claimed normal, and the desire by two thirds of Americans to be normal, average, and what they are supposed to be allows politicians to manipulate them. . .
until they say something like middle class is $200,000 - $250,000 a year.