Cultural Crossroads: A Middle Class Requires Democracy

Every year at Christmastime, millions of Americans watch TV portrayals of Charles Dickens’s classic novel A Christmas Carol. In the story a regular guy named Bob Cratchit works at the firm of Scrooge and Marley.

Bob works full-time, plus nights and weekends, but even so, he has no idea how he’ll be able to afford Christmas dinner, let alone gifts for his children. He can’t afford medical care for his son, dooming Tiny Tim to either death or a lifetime deformity. He puts up with daily abuse from his employer because he lives in terror of unemployment and homelessness.

Bob Cratchit is screwed.

We like watching A Christmas Carol because Bob’s boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, famously has a change of heart and “donates” Christmas dinner to the Cratchit family as well as health care for Tiny Tim. Yet as we watch the show, we often forget the subtext of the story: without strong worker protections and/or unions, the workplace is not a democracy; it more closely resembles a kingdom, and the worker is the “property” of the employer. (Dickens knew this well — his own father was once thrown into debtor’s prison.)

In the seven-thousand-year history of the “civilized” world, most regular folks have been like Bob Cratchit. Because the history of “civilization” is the history of anti-democratic kings and kingdoms (or theocrats or other despots), most of the average people over the past seven thousand years in “civilized” countries either have been slaves or, if workers like Cratchit, have worked as hard as they could and still had trouble getting by.

For virtually all of recorded history, society has been divided into a small but fabulously wealthy ownership class (who were also the political rulers) and a large but poor slave, serf, and/or working class. Because of this lack of democracy — both in government and in the workplace (a union is democracy in the workplace) — outside of a small mercantilist class and a very few skilled tradesmen who managed to organize into guilds, a middle class has been an aberration.

A middle class can’t exist when democracy is weak or absent. It arises only when We the People have a strong say in both our government and our workplace.

There Is No “Free” Market

Look at history and you will find that the middle class was the creation of liberal democracies. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did not fight a bloody war to create a country only for wealthy property holders. Our Founders believed that every Bob Cratchit willing to work for his living should be able to earn enough to own his house and support himself and his family. That’s what it means to be middle class — and part of why Jefferson put “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence.

The Founders also knew that the middle class doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. That’s why, in the preamble to the Constitution, they wrote that one purpose of government was to “promote the general welfare.”

Two centuries later, when the middle class was in danger of disappearing during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt almost single-handedly created a new middle class through his New Deal policies. Roosevelt’s success demonstrates that government can and must “promote the general welfare” because only government can create the conditions that make a middle class possible. And FDR was able to do it only because an overwhelming majority of Americans voted for it in a relatively free and open democracy.

Listen to the right-wing pundits — the people I call the cons — and they will tell you something completely different. They suggest (and some actually believe) that a middle class will naturally spring into being when the kingdoms of corporate power are freed from government restrictions. The way to create good jobs, according to the cons, is to “free” the market. When business gets to do whatever it wants, they say, it will create wealth, and that wealth will trickle down to the rest of us, creating a middle class.

The cons’ belief in “free” markets is a bit like the old Catholic Church’s insistence that the Earth was at the center of the solar system. The free-market line is widely believed by those in power, and those who challenge this belief are labeled heretics — and it’s wrong.

Governments provide markets with a stable currency for financial transactions. They provide a legal infrastructure and a court system to enforce the contracts that make the market possible. They provide an educated workforce through public education, and those workers show up at their places of business after traveling on public roads, rails, and airways provided by the government. Businesses that use the “free” market are protected by police and fire departments provided by the government, and they send their communications — from phone to e-mail — over lines that follow public rights of way maintained and protected by the government.

And, most important, the rules of the game of business are defined by the government. Any sports fan can tell you that without rules and referees, football, baseball, basketball and hockey would be a mess. Similarly, business without rules won’t work. In a corporate kingdom — a corporatocracy — those rules are made by the businesses themselves and will inevitably screw workers and citizens. In a democracy those rules are made by We the People, both through our elected representatives and through union negotiations with the business kings/lords/CEOs.

The “Smaller-government” Con

The cons believe that what business does is business’s business and that government should keep its nose out of it, even when the business is run by Ebenezer Scrooge and leads to centuries of sick Tiny Tims and terrifi ed Bob Cratchits.

Talk-show cons and TV talking-head cons and political cons — both Republicans and “conservative” or “middle of the road” (euphemisms for corporate connected) Democrats — say that government just gets in the way of the market. They want to “let the market decide” our economy.

Unspoken is their belief that if economic and social policy are made by the market, we don’t need government — the elected voice and will of We the People — for most domestic affairs. One of the most vocal cons, Grover Norquist, told National Public Radio’s Mara Liasson in a May 25, 2001, interview, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

During the Golden Age of the American middle class, people routinely voted themselves tax increases to invest in new schools, better roads, higher pay for police and firefi ghters, and a multitude of other infrastructure and public works projects. Hospitals were owned and run by local communities, as were water and sewage systems and, in most of the United States, power plants and other public utilities. Taxes by and large were thought of as investments in civil society and community and were routinely embraced by the majority of the middle class. Of course, people made jokes about not liking taxes, but they still knew that without taxes there would be no services, and people wanted and needed those services.

Ronald Reagan and his public relations (PR) machine, funded by huge corporations and wealthy people like Joseph Coors, promoted the thought virus — the meme — that taxes are bad and government is bad. Reagan ran as an “outsider” to government (although he was the former governor of California) and even ran for reelection as president “against” government.

Reagan put forward the point of view of the wealthy elite, who felt that they were paying large sums of their vast wealth to help “the little people” have good schools and communities that worked. He changed laws like the Fairness Doctrine, in 1986, so that sycophants like Rush Limbaugh could appear on the public airwaves (with heavy corporate funding) to help convince the “average person” that taxes were bad and government was bad.

Reagan stopped enforcing the Sherman Antitrust Act, which since 1881 had held at bay the aggregation of corporate power, and the media began forming huge monopolies that were then used to reinforce on national TV and radio the perspectives of commentators like Limbaugh. Increasingly, across America two-, three-, and four-newspaper towns became one-newspaper towns, as the era of mergers and acquisitions swept the nation. Labor pages vanished from these new multi-state, chain-owned newspapers and were replaced exclusively by “business sections.” Labor almost entirely vanished from the American press.

An entire generation has been indoctrinated in this smaller-is-better view to the point where polls showed that when Bill Clinton said “smaller government,” people reacted positively. Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), further reducing the power of We the People to regulate business and the media. The result was another explosion of mergers and the near total takeover of the American media and the American workplace by multinational corporations that have little or no allegiance to the USA or the concept of democracy. Today the bottom line rules and workers be damned.

But the cracks are now showing. In 2005 we found out just what happens when you follow Grover Norquist’s advice and wash government down the drain. When Hurricane Katrina hit, more than a thousand people drowned in the basin of New Orleans. Our nation failed in its response because for most of the past twenty-five years cons who don’t believe in governance have been systematically dismantling every aspect of our government except that part they can use to punish us or spy on us.

A listener to my radio program called in and pointed out: “You can’t govern if you don’t believe in government.”

The conservatives who are now in the driver’s seat are steering us away from government. But when you diminish the role of government, you aren’t left with a “free” market. You’re left with feudalism.

When George W. Bush and his cronies say that they want to make government smaller, they are making explicit their undeclared war on the middle class. We can’t expect the cons to have a change of heart: that occurs only in fiction. If we want to preserve a middle class in America — and the democracy that the middle class alone can maintain — we must take our government back.

Excerpted with permission from Thom Hartmann’s newly released book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class…and What We Can Do About It (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006). Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show carried on the Air America Radio network and Sirius. Visit for more information.