It's the Middle Class, Stupid!
|listen to a Penguin Audio excerpt|
Government has really screwed things up for the average American. Work has been devalued. Education costs are out of sight. Effort and ambition have never been so scantily rewarded. Political guru James Carville and pollster extraordinaire Stan Greenberg argue that our political parties must admit their failures and the electorate must reclaim its voice, because taking on the wealthy and privileged is not class warfare—it is a matter of survival.
Told in the alternating voices of these two top political strategists, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! provides eye-opening, outspoken, and provocative arguments on where our government has gone wrong and what Americans can do about it before it’s too late.
WE ARE WRITING THIS BOOK BECAUSE WE FAILED AND THAT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH
There’s no other way to put it. We failed. It is as simple as that. Both of us have spent our lives focused on what’s happening with working people and seeing them get a fair shake for a hard day’s work—seeing them get the chance to move up the ladder and be honored. We put the middle class at the center of the world, because you can’t have an America without a middle class.
Well, we failed, and we have got to do better, and that’s why we are writing this book.
You need to understand the Democratic Party and why people have been drawn to it over many decades and through so much of our history. Some joined because it was the party of working people that would stand up for the little guy against the big shots. Some joined because it was the party that stood up for the poor. Some because it was the party of rights for women, Latinos, immigrants, gays and lesbians, each in their time—the party tolerant of the country’s growing diversity. Some joined because it was more supportive of abortion. Some because of the environment and climate change. Some because of spending on the arts or whatever.
Those are all good and important reasons to embrace the Democratic Party, but they are not what has animated us through all the years of struggle. Our passion for Democratic politics began with race and racial equality. That shaped us like no other issue and upended the political world like no other. But, like Robert Kennedy, we quickly came to believe that our party would only succeed and have purpose if we put work, work values, and hardworking people of whatever color at the center of our efforts. Given our country’s history, that might take a lifetime.
The two of us could not be more different. James is tall and bald. Stan is a short guy who had a ’fro. And you could not have constructed more divergent personal journeys to our common passion. Stan grew up in working-class big-city neighborhoods and galloped through Harvard and Yale before putting his spotlight on the Reagan Democrats, the disaffected working class that felt betrayed by the Democratic Party. James grew up in small-town Cajun Louisiana, joined the Marines, and barely got passing grades in law school before he started running and winning campaigns. Both of us became convinced that Bill Clinton was the extraordinary politician who was trusted by African American voters and instinctively understood he had to honor and win over the “forgotten middle class” to lead the country.
James I grew up in Carville, Louisiana, in Iberville Parish, sixty-five miles north of New Orleans. Carville was barely a blip on the map back then, and the only thing that stopped folks passing straight through was the stop sign in the middle of town.
Carville was named after my paternal grandfather, who was accorded that honor because he was the postmaster, one of the three generations of our family to hold that position. He also owned a country store, which was a big deal in a place like Carville. The store and the post office were adjacent. I remember in my daddy’s time when he ran the store, if you wanted to buy a three-cent stamp, which was what a first-class stamp cost for most of the fifties (it went up to four cents in 1959), my dad would say, “Fine, here’s your stamp.” Then if you wanted a loaf of bread and a quart of milk, he’d walk you next door and sell you that. My momma, Miss Nippy, worked selling encyclopedias door-to-door. They were hardworking people.
My dad reckoned up two tills each night, one in the store and one in the post office. I think Washington got what was coming to it and the Carville kids got the rest. Mom and Dad could never make a lot of money when they had eight kids going in and out of the store: we pretty much ate up everything they had. I helped myself to a lot more soft drinks, candy, cookies, and sandwiches than I did stamps. I didn’t have much use for those.
It’s my guess that Carville was about 85 percent black, and for the first ten years of my life it was segregated. Whites and blacks went about their business separately. It might have been hard for an outsider to figure that Carville was divided along racial lines, because there weren’t actually any amenities to segregate. My father, Chester, employed a black man in his store—something you never saw in the South—and we never used racial slurs in my family on instruction from my parents.
Because the biggest employer around was the federal government— the National Leprosarium in town was the nation’s premier center for the treatment of Hansen’s disease—Carville was a different kind of place, and it’s safe to say I grew up in one of the more egalitarian places in the rural South, which might not be saying much.
But after the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, everything changed. Once segregation was declared unconstitutional, people paid more attention to what had been the norm around town for many years. After taking segregation for granted for generations, whites became fearful of what a newly empowered black minority might mean, because we knew that black people were going to assert their constitutional rights. Perhaps the prevailing sentiment was that if blacks weren’t so pushy, life would continue as it had before.
Few times in life can you pick out an experience that forced you to alter an opinion you held. I can identify one right here. When I was sixteen I borrowed a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from the mobile library. I’d asked for a book about football but I guess the lady could tell I needed some educating. I got so engrossed in Harper Lee’s classic that I stuck it inside a different cover and read it under my desk during lessons at school. When I finished, I realized that whatever preconceptions I had about race, I was wrong—dead wrong.
My great-grandfather was born in Ireland; he came over to Wisconsin when he was twelve years old and he was in a regiment at the end of the Civil War. As a Republican in the era of Reconstruction in the South, he was with the good guys; Lincoln, the Great Emancipator himself, was of course a Republican. My great-grandfather actually served in the Louisiana legislature and in the very short administration of P. B. S. Pinchback (1872–73), the first African American governor of any state.
The Republican inclinations of the family at that time have left a legacy that lives on in me. Don’t be alarmed, my Democrat friends: that legacy is just my name. My daddy’s name was Chester and my actual name is Chester James Carville. We were both named in honor of Chester A. Arthur, the twenty-first president of the United States—and a Republican—who assumed office in 1881 after the assassination of President Garfield. Presidential names are a Carville tradition. In my great-grandfather’s day, people who were pro-Union tended to be very patriotic, and they would show this by naming their kids after presidents. My great-grandfather was John Madison Carville (after the fourth president) and his brother was Garfield (after number twenty, the assassinated one, and another Republican).
By the time I was growing up, Democrats and Republicans were standing for very different principles, and I could see which side was going to represent me. I understood from reading To Kill a Mockingbird that things had to change and I knew that the federal government had to make things change. It wasn’t as if Congress could pass a law in Washington and segregation would simply wither away. There were riots when James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and it took five hundred U.S. marshals and a detachment of Army engineers to allow this brave pioneer to take his rightful place at school. My already existing interest in politics had a point on which to focus, and my views have remained the same ever since.
My understanding that black people were getting a bad deal ensured that I became a national Democrat because of the party’s commitment to civil rights. I helped organize the first chapter of college Democrats at Southern University, the historically black university in Baton Rouge. A group of us went up there to help students start their chapter in 1964 when I was at LSU and we may have been the first LSU students ever to set foot there. I campaigned for Hubert Humphrey when he passed through our mutual alma mater in 1964 and I still have a letter he wrote me at the time.
In 1966, ahead of being drafted, I joined the U.S. Marines. Whenever there’s a war, the Carvilles join up; that’s just what we do. Serving in the Corps was very formative. The military doesn’t tolerate any racial BS and there wasn’t any institutional segregation, although the white guys hung out with the white guys and the black guys hung out with the black guys, by and large. I was in the Corps through 1968. When I left the Corps, integration was moving forward, especially in the schools, and I wanted to be a part of the deal. So I taught science, about which I knew little, at a public school for boys in Vacherie, Louisiana, in 1969, which was the first year of complete integration in the state. The ratio of white students to black students at the school was maybe 60:40.
I developed a fascination for the machinery of politics from what
I saw at the Louisiana state legislature, in Baton Rouge. I had a summer job running checks around town for a local bank, and it was a treat to get assigned a delivery to the legislature, which was part theater and part circus. I’d watch a session for a few minutes from the gallery, and one time I saw Governor Earl Long marching down the halls, trailing cops and reporters and functionaries behind him like he was the most important man in the world. It was the coolest thing I’d seen in my life.
To this day, Earl Long remains one of my great American political heroes. Earl was governor three times, elected in 1939, 1948, and
1956; the last of these terms coincided with my teenage years, and the rebel in me liked his iconoclasm. In Louisiana, you were in one of two camps with regard to Earl and his brother Huey, who’d died in 1935: while my family was against Earl Long, I appreciated his sense of humor and his cleverness. Earl’s every instinct was populist, and he distrusted corporate power with every bone in his body. That point of view appealed to this young man.
In 1959, William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, sent the great reporter A. J. Liebling down to Baton Rouge to write about Earl because the governor had been committed to a mental hospital. Among the issues politicians had with Earl was that he was insufficiently dogmatic on the question of segregation. About an hour after arriving in Louisiana, Liebling proclaimed that in fact the only sane person in the state was the governor and that everyone else was nuts.
Liebling wrote five pieces about Earl for the New Yorker, and they were published in book form as The Earl of Louisiana in 1961, after
Earl had died. That book had a profound effect on me. Earl’s story unfolds before your eyes, and it’s like a Greek tragedy. His political demise was largely centered on race. Liebling writes a wonderful account of Earl having a set-to in the legislature with a really odious character named William Rainach, who Earl called “pinhead Willie.” Rainach was blatantly removing blacks from voter rolls, and
Earl called him on it. Earl was very drunk at the time, but he told
Rainach that one day, when he’d gone back to where he came from, he’d sit out on his porch and look up to God. “And when you do,” Earl yelled, “you got to recognize that n——s is human beings.” Despite the crassness of the language, and Earl’s mental state, Liebling wrote that Long was protecting black voters’ rights in a way no other southern politician of the time would have dared to do.
My political career started that same year I saw Earl Long in the flesh: 1959. Using my newly minted driver’s license, I motored around Iberville Parish, stumping for a state legislature candidate named Price LeBlanc. Not for the last time, the guy I campaigned for lost the race. I lost a lot more races once I finally graduated from LSU undergraduate and law school and went to work in the law. I helped a guy at my law firm run for the public service commission, but he lost. I campaigned for a woman running for judge in Baton Rouge, and for E. L. “Bubba” Henry, who ran for governor of Louisiana in 1979, but they lost too.
My lack of success (if that’s the word) didn’t deter me from jumping out of the law in 1980 and going to work for the political consulting firm of Gus Weill and Raymond Strother. I assisted on the campaign of Billy Tauzin, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, and was campaign manager for Baton
Rouge mayor Pat Screen, whose office I went to work in. But I realized what I really wanted to do was run political campaigns, and in 1982 I told myself I was either going crazy, going to jail, or going out of town. Option three looked a little more attractive than the others, so I left. Peter Hart and Mark Shields, two well-known Washingtonians, got me a job running the 1982 Senate campaign of Virginia lieutenant governor Richard Davis, which we lost by only a few thousand votes.
By now I was nearing forty and hungry for success. I was hungry, period. I was out of work and I got a job managing the Senate campaign of Texas state senator Lloyd Doggett. We won the primary, won the runoff, and got slaughtered by Phil Gramm in the general election.
Then I was out of work again, and getting desperate, when I was hired by Bob Casey Sr.’s 1986 campaign for Pennsylvania governor against Bill Scranton; it would be my first big come-from-behind win. I ran Casey’s campaign with Paul Begala, and I think it was during this gubernatorial race that my liberalism underwent a major shift toward economic issues. It was a kind of turning point. Casey was pro-life and socially conservative, but he was a strong union supporter and very liberal economically. Casey sympathized with the people in Pennsylvania who were losing their jobs in the steel industry, and he had a very detailed plan to put people back to work.
Casey had already stood for governor three times and lost, and
Scranton was saying that the state of Pennsylvania needed a winner, not this guy who’d lost three times. To which Casey said that he knew what it was like to get knocked down and get back up off the canvas: the view from down there could teach a man a lot. There were plenty of people in western Pennsylvania who were on the floor but were showing great courage and determination in trying to get up. Casey wasn’t the most articulate guy, but he really connected with people with that.
Another campaign that shifted in my focus was Harris Wofford’s special Senate election victory over Dick Thornburgh following John Heinz’s death in 1991. Wofford was a very soft-spoken guy who told us about meeting an ophthalmologist from suburban Philadelphia who said, “You know, I want to tell you this: If a criminal has a right to a lawyer, why doesn’t a working person have a right to health care?” Boom: we ran that right into the Senate, and that’s when I got a call from Bill Clinton.
Stan Until I got to high school and moved to the suburbs, my family lived in a series of small row houses, first in Philadelphia and then, from the time I was age five, in Washington, D.C. My father worked on the line at Westinghouse, then started and lost two small retail shops before convincing the American Instrument Company in the D.C. area to take a chance on this self-taught engineer. While he took a lot of night classes, he didn’t go to college and get a degree, because his father used all the family money to bring Jews from Russia to escape Hitler’s reach. He brought our own family members whenever possible but he also assisted many others who appealed to him for help. My father resented that choice and never made very much money, but he was intense and smart, worked hard, was a whiz at mathematics, invented many things, and became well-known in environmental sciences. He invented the first germproof cabinet and the device that measures the toxicity of materials on airplanes.
But for all that, he really put his energy into pushing and following his kids, whether he was filming my brother playing quarterback on his school team, or interrogating my teachers about why I had gotten an F in civics or why I wasn’t taking calculus. Along with a close band of young families, he founded and built the synagogue directly across the street from where we would live. He became the president for many terms, and my mother, who was a bookkeeper, served as president of the sisterhood. I accompanied my father to New York when he interviewed candidates for rabbi, and learned pretty quickly that people think they know as much as religious authorities about what is true or false, right or wrong.
We rented a house in an all-black neighborhood in Washington—
the “ ’hood” of our day—right by the Tivoli Theater and just up Georgia Avenue from Howard University. Back then, I never set foot in the more affluent areas of the city that I now inhabit. I am sure this was all my parents could afford, but it was also walking distance from an Orthodox synagogue—a necessity for my grandparents, who lived with us.
These formative years were dominated by race and desegregation. Washington was a very southern city, and segregated; that included the schools. It is hard to believe now, but whenever I visited my relatives in Philadelphia or New York City, they mocked my southern accent. I went to an all-white school across the alley from our house, but the black kids went to another, Barnard Elementary School, farther away. All my friends were black. I don’t have any recollection of white kids until we moved to a mostly working-class white and Jewish neighborhood when I was in the third grade. But when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Washington’s school segregation was unconstitutional, I was bused to the school that my black friends had been attending—and they protected me. I was also short and very fast. “Busing” was a term of art. They literally picked up two sixth-grade classes with all the white pupils and moved them intact to the black school. Previously, I had walked to school, but now I had to take two city buses to get there. I remember at the time dancing with the only black girl in the class when I saw she was sitting alone, and collecting the money from the other pupils to buy our black teacher, Ms. Dillard, a clock radio as an end-of-year gift and wondering why she was crying so hard.
My parents and everybody else I knew was a Democrat, but I don’t remember politics ever being discussed. We mostly argued about my brother or me dating a shiksa, a non-Jewish girl, or whether I would finally start reading books. My mother would give me a dollar every time I read a book, but when I started devouring them, my mother paid for every other book; when I got to college, all my book bills went directly to them. I never hung out with the smart kids until my senior year, and never considered going anywhere but to a state school.
My parents never volunteered in a political campaign; it was enough just to vote. I was conscious of a few Communists in one strand of the family, but my father kept us out of their Jewish youth groups, given his concerns about keeping his security clearance during the McCarthy era.
The summer before I went away to college, I worked in a factory owned by the company where my father was employed. It was in rural Maryland, and virtually all the workers were from West Virginia— except for the blacks, who worked only in the shipping department. I volunteered every evening after work at the NAACP office on U Street and helped organize the March on Washington, which I watched from the organizing tent on the mall. But these were hot times at work, and I stayed inside with the black workers when the whites went out to Route 1 to jeer at the marchers coming down from New York.
By the time I arrived at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was ready to take off: I became active in the Young Democrats, wrote a weekly column for the paper, and organized a speakers program called Voices of Dissent that brought the head of the Communist Party and the publisher of the National Review to campus. The latter offered to help when some state legislators and the alumni association tried to stop it. I headed up a movement to overturn the rules that allowed men later hours in the dorms and barred women from living off campus. Seeking to overturn the university’s legal principle of acting in loco parentis, I had stickers printed, “One Man, One Mother.”
I was consumed with studying government. In the summer, I worked in the War on Poverty VISTA office in D.C. and did volunteer work at the Young Democrats—and wound up going to the Democratic National Convention and dating the best friend of Lucy Johnson, which got me into the family quarters of the White House. I later told President Clinton about making out in the solarium where we were meeting. But by 1965 I was picketing the White House to protest the Vietnam War. For all the upheaval and tragedy, we were fortunate to be shaped by such times.
I went to Harvard for my PhD and, after three years, went to teach at Yale. I joined the Harvard strike and class boycott over Vietnam, but mostly I put my efforts into helping Robert Kennedy’s campaign by developing a computer program with fellow students to determine where a visit by the candidate would have the biggest impact, particularly in the white Catholic areas of Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, and California. Many more of my fellow students backed Senator Eugene McCarthy (“Get Clean for Gene”), the first presidential candidate to break on the war and win the campuses and affluent suburbs. That was the defining choice of my generation of emerging activists. Bill Clinton, too, backed Robert Kennedy, who was adored by black Americans and whose call for greater personal responsibility enabled him to win in the Catholic neighborhoods as well. I was not very conscious of it at the time, but that cross appeal is what drew me to him.
During my time at Harvard, I ran a one-hundred-city study for the War on Poverty on poor people’s attitudes, ultimately focusing on five neighborhoods: three black ones in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit; a Latino one in San Jose; and a poor white one in Hamilton, Ohio. My dissertation started as a series of surveys, but for my first book, Politics and Poverty, I went to live in these cities and conducted in-depth, in-person interviews to reveal more of the texture of people’s thinking. I had learned a lot from James Q. Wilson, my dissertation adviser at Harvard, about understanding urban life and the seriousness of crime, and from Robert Dahl and Bob Lane, my colleagues at Yale, who had written classic works after observing New Haven’s ethnic politics and conducting in-depth interviews to understand working-class thinking. I read avidly the work of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist, who wrote about the durability of capitalist countries, primarily because of “hegemonic ideas” that win the support of key elements of the working class.
I taught a course at Yale with John Wilhelm on organizing city neighborhoods. John would organize Yale’s employees and head the national hotel and restaurant workers’ union. In fact, he commandeered the phones that I had installed in the basement of our house for polling to canvass employees and win the union recognition election at Yale. As a result, I was hardly the administration’s favorite professor. I organized a work-study program at Yale with Mayor Charles Evers, the first black mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, and supervised our work-study students there: I would rent a car and drive to Natchez and other towns that figured in our civil rights history.
I also was recruited by Rosa DeLauro to help with polling and the get-out-the-vote effort for the local reform candidate for mayor— who, to everyone’s surprise, defeated the party machine’s candidate. We would marry after a few years—my second marriage, during which I would learn about the real America. Rosa’s family was from Wooster Square, the heart of New Haven’s Italian American community, where her father and mother had served as ward chair and members of the board of aldermen. Rosa would ultimately be elected to Congress. They all taught me a thing or two about the centrality of hard work and putting everything into seeing your kids get up that ladder.
My opus as an academic was Race and State in Capitalist
Development— the inelegantly titled book that took me to Alabama, South Africa, Israel, and Northern Ireland. I wrote about how emerging business organizations, unions, and commercial farmers used ethnic divisions to protect their interests—contrary to conventional wisdom that economic growth breaks down barriers and promotes integration. What I really got hooked on were my interviews with white trade unionists in the steel and mining industry in Alabama; mostly Afrikaans-speaking union leaders across the gold mining, auto, and textile sectors in South Africa; and Jewish leaders of Histadrut, the general workers’ union in Israel. Some were full of animosity for other groups, but mostly they were not; in any case, you did not need ethnic or racial animus to understand the choices they were making. I identified with the Histadrut’s call for “100 percent Jewish labor” on the kibbutzim and moshavim to allow Jewish emigration to Israel and to teach Jews to respect labor. But mostly what I learned was to push away preconceptions and prejudices and listen to people, particularly working people, who everywhere struggle to survive and get any leg up that they can.
Chris Dodd foolishly decided to exploit my emerging talents in his first race for the U.S. Senate, as did Bob Carr to win back his Michigan congressional seat. There, the United Auto Workers and the state Democratic Party asked me to figure out why they got slaughtered in the Catholic, middle-class, and UAW-dominated suburban of Macomb County, which had given John Kennedy his biggest margin in any suburb. I called these defectors “Reagan Democrats” and it stuck, because I reflected their cry of frustration and pointed a path back. After hearing the moderator read a quote from Robert Kennedy about equal opportunity, these disaffected workers shouted: “That’s bullshit. No wonder they killed him.” They had voted for Reagan and Wallace not because they had shifted their own thinking but because they believed the Democratic Party had betrayed them. They wanted to know when the Democrats would be for the middle class again.
The Democratic Party in Washington scorned my work. With worries of another Jesse Jackson candidacy for president, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee declared me persona non grata, but not the Democratic Leadership Council, which had been founded by southern and moderate politicians, and not the National Education Association, which was then at the periphery of the union movement. Joe Lieberman paid attention when he surprised everybody and defeated Lowell Weicker for the U.S. Senate, carrying working-class towns that national Democrats had been losing.
And so did Bill Clinton, who told people he read my article on reaching Reagan Democrats three times. In his announcement speech in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, Arkansas, he declared, “This is not just a campaign for the presidency—it is a campaign for the future, for the forgotten middle-class families of America who deserve a government that fights for them.”
So that is where James Carville and I met and started working together, talking every day, yet apparently for naught. With the middle class now on life support, we clearly have both failed. Well, they can’t settle for that, after years of hard work, and neither can we. That’s why we’re writing this book.
“James Carville and Stan Greenberg have written one of the finest—and most eye-opening—examinations of how our economy, even when it’s growing, doesn’t increase the incomes of middle class Americans or give poor working people the chance to earn them. Unless it can be reversed, this trend will limit the future for all Americans. Carville and Greenberg have some good ideas about how to do that and restore the American Dream, making It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! essential reading for politicians, policy-makers, and concerned citizens.” –President Bill Clinton
“A wonderful takedown of how the middle class has been left feeling betrayed and screwed over by both political parties.” —Huffington Post
“A recipe for President Barack Obama’s re-election….very timely…impressive.” –Associated Press
“Democrats and Republicans alike in the elite and political class should pay heed: these pages contain more than a little truth.” –National Journal
“Top-gun political strategist, ever controversial Ragin’ Cajun James Carville and pollster nonpareil Stan Greenberg deliver the message that could keep Obama in office: It’s The Middle Class, Stupid! But class warfare isn’t the answer (nuts!); it’s for both parties to admit their failures and for regular people to get involved in taking back their country from bigwigs in Wall Street and Washington.” —Elissa Schappel, Vanity Fair
“For political junkies who junkies who enjoy straight-talk policy discussion.” —Kirkus
“Political guru James Carville and savvy pollster Stan Greenberg team up for a presidential campaign-oriented book that will be part of the media circus surrounding the election.” —Booklist
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