By Nelson Lichtenstein
George Orwell thought the precise and purposeful deployment of our language was the key to the kind of politics we hoped to advance. By that standard, virtually everyone--from the center to the left, from Barack Obama to Richard Trumka to the activists of Occupy Wall Street--has made a hash of the way we name the most crucial features of our society.
Exhibit A is the suffocating pervasiveness with which we use the phrase "middle class" as the label we have come to attach to not just all of those who are hurting in the current economic slump, but to the entire stratum that used to be identified as working class. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka proclaims "it was the labor movement that built the middle class; it was the middle class that made America great," while out in Indiana, when the Republican-dominated state legislature stood on the verge of enacting a new set of anti-labor laws, a local unionist declared, "Fighting right-to-work legislation is about standing up for our middle-class values."
The Obama administration has raised this conflation of working class and middle class to a fine art. Vice President Joe Biden, whose blue-collar roots in the gritty Pennsylvania coal country are quite genuine, presided over a "Middle Class Task Force" during his first couple of years in office; more recently, President Obama--in an effort to identify his policies with the Progressive-era social reformism of Teddy Roosevelt--used the phrase "middle class" twenty-eight times in his highly-touted Osawatomie, Kansas speech of early December 2011.
So what's the problem? Who cares what we call something if we know what it means?
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