Restoring the Great American Middle
I grew up in a small place in the middle of Missouri, a town called Lexington that sits atop the bluffs of the Missouri River along old Highway 13. It’s a simple place, but a proud one. Union and Confederate soldiers clashed there early in the Civil War, and the town cherishes that memory, proud to have mattered in the nation’s history. People there believe they matter still, that their way of life represents something valuable to America.
They are right. But it’s been a long time since Washington thought so. Towns like Lexington and the people who live there make up middle America, but the great American middle is more than a geography. It is the heart of our society—the farmers and teachers, mechanics and tradesmen who forged the character of this country.
These are the people who explored a continent, who built the railroads, who opened the West. These are the workers whose labor launched the Industrial Revolution and whose ingenuity made the American economy the marvel of the world. These are the families that have rallied to this country’s flag at every hour of danger, and who shoulder the burden of defending our nation even now.
But the great middle who made this country hasn’t been respected by its leadership class for too long.
For decades, the ruling elite who controls the country’s commanding heights—the media, academia, Hollywood, and of course government—have embraced priorities starkly at odds with the values and needs of the American middle. They favor globalism over national solidarity; social change over community; skepticism over faith.
Washington has followed their lead, avidly promoting a politics of elite values and elite ambition. For thirty years or more, the policies of both parties have favored the wealthy and the well-educated who live in our mega-cities, and those who aspire to join them. But if your ambition is not to start a tech company but to work in the family business, to serve not on a corporate board but with the local PTA, Washington tells you that you don’t matter and you’re on your own.
As a consequence, the great American middle is facing a crisis—a loss of respect and work, the decline of home and family, an epidemic of loneliness and despair.
This is the defining crisis of our time. Our broad and popular democracy depends on the American middle. Without it, we decline toward hierarchy, oligarchy, and the rule of the elites. That decline is already well underway.
If the conservative movement born in the last century is to have a future in this one, it can no longer rest content with the aging policies and aging rhetoric from decades past. It must address itself now to the defining challenge of this day.
It’s time to face the facts. The 21st-century economy has generally favored a small segment of society: the wealthy and well-educated at the top. College graduates earn 80 percent more per week than those who graduated from high school alone. Median salaries at Facebook, Alphabet (Google), and Netflix, each firm stocked with Ivy League graduates, all vastly exceed $150,000. These high earnings translate into lifetimes of wealth-building and consumption. But people who work with their hands haven’t reaped the rewards of the information economy.
That’s no coincidence. This economy was made by the people who profit most from it, our leadership class of C-Suite executives, big banks, big tech, and D.C. policymakers.
But in places like the one where I grew up, the good-paying jobs are moving overseas or south of the border or maybe to cities on the coasts. And once-vibrant towns decline, taking with them the network of neighborhoods, schools, and churches foundational to middle class life.
The crisis is as much social as economic. The American middle is battling an epidemic of loneliness and despair. Fewer young people are getting married or starting families. Drug addiction is surging. The opioid menace has ravaged every sector, every age group, every geography of working people.
And everywhere, deaths of despair are mounting—among farmers, among soldiers, most shockingly, among the young. The young are the hope of our society, but in America today they are choosing to take their own lives in alarming numbers: for teenage girls, the suicide rate doubled between 2007 and 2015. The leadership class frequently notes that our nation has never been richer, but the tragedy of youth suicide betrays a profound poverty of hope.
And is that really so surprising? Today’s youth must make their way in a society increasingly defined not by the genuine and personal love of family or church, but by the cold and judgmental world of social media. Our young people are bombarded by video games and violence and the relentless status-seeking modeled by our cultural elite. These trends tear at our country’s social fabric and undermine our common ethic of citizenship.
The sum of it all is that too many Americans are losing their standing as citizens. They are losing their voice in the life of this nation. And that means they are losing their liberty. Because being a free person—being an American—isn’t just about what you can buy. It’s about the pride that comes in supporting your family; it’s about contributing to your community; it’s about looking a neighbor in the eye and knowing you’re his equal.
It’s about respect. And too many Americans aren’t getting it.
The leadership class tells us that all of this is the result of forces beyond anyone’s control. That’s a convenient excuse, but a false one.
In fact, today’s economy and today’s culture reflect the deliberate choices of the elite. Opening our borders to a massive influx of low and unskilled labor was a choice. Incentivizing multinational firms to move production overseas was a choice. Favoring social media giants over domestic manufacturing was a choice. Each of these choices was opposed by our middle class. And in each instance, the elites didn’t care.
Though the cosmopolitan class fancies itself independent, its members have their own masters. When a country’s productive middle erodes, its industry becomes tethered to foreign capital. And that’s what has happened in America. The very trade imbalances that have stolen American jobs from our heartland and built China’s military have also fueled a wave of foreign investment in America’s most promising new companies. We have cheap Chinese goods and eager Chinese investors, to be sure. But our greatest geopolitical competitor is quite literally buying our share of our country’s future.
The legacy of these choices is clear to see: national division and national decline. It is time we made different choices to benefit different people, the people who actually sustain this country, the American middle.
We need a new politics of national renewal.
We must begin by rejecting old orthodoxies—unfettered trade at any cost; a permissive immigration system; a tax code that favors corporate tax shelters and corporate offshoring; economic policy that rewards concentration—and put American workers first.
That means we must think more carefully about what economic success looks like. GDP growth is important, but it cannot be the sole measure of this nation’s greatness. And so it cannot be the only aim of this nation’s policy. For our purpose is not to make a few people wealthy, but to sustain a great democracy. That means sustaining the workers and families who make democracy possible. And for that, we need not just a bigger economy, but a better one.
We need a labor market that offers dignified, rewarding work to every worker who wants it, wherever they are from, whatever degree they have, whether their ambition is to start a business or simply to start a family. We need to encourage business investment in workers rather than capital hoarding, investment that will drive new opportunities to the towns and neighborhoods of the American middle class. And after decades of neglect, we must strengthen the associations that give working Americans control over their lives: neighborhood councils, schools, churches, and co-ops.
We must repair the torn fabric of our civic life. We need a politics that prioritizes strong marriages and strong families, where children know their parents and are nurtured by their love. That means parents and families should be rewarded and prioritized by our tax code. Because the best way to improve a child’s future is to provide them a stable home. And that’s a chance we should give to every child we can.
And we need a better understanding of liberty. For in the end, liberty is more than selling or buying or the right to be left alone. It’s the ability to have a say, to have a stake, and together, to set the course of our own history. That is the promise of our founding revolution, and that is the promise we must renew for this day.
Josh Hawley is a U.S. senator from Missouri.