If words are used too often, they start to lose their meaning. Try saying the phrase “deep discount” to yourself sixty times in a minute, for example, and it turns into a disjointed collection of consonants and syllables with no connection to any existing concept or experience. The technical term for this psychological experience is “semantic satiation,” and it was recently described in the sitcom Ted Lasso as the moment when “words become a sound.”
One phrase that American politicians have nearly pushed to the point of semantic satiation is “the middle class.”
It’s a phrase with a specific economic meaning, and it seems simple enough to define: divide the economy into thirds based on income, and the center third that’s neither at the top or the bottom is the middle class.
But when politicians make their exhortations to the great American middle class, they’re typically trying to appeal to everyone — from minimum-wage workers in the service economy to McMansion-dwelling suburban families in the top 10%.
Most recently, the huge tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan pushed through in 2017 was wrongly pitched as a “middle class tax cut.” And all that elasticity applied to the term has done its work: Surveys have shown that nine out of ten Americans consider themselves to be middle class, which is of course mathematically impossible.
In the latest episode of Pitchfork Economics, I interview New York Times tax and economics reporter Jim Tankersley about his new book “The Riches of This Land: The Untold True Story of America’s Middle Class.” It was important to immediately hammer down a definition of the middle class, so semantic satiation didn’t creep into the conversation.
Tankersley agrees that the middle class has been broadly defined to encompass “literally everyone” in the United States at one time or another.
For the purposes of his book, Tankersley says he uses “an economic security definition” to describe the middle class, by which he means “whether you can afford some basic tenets of what I think Americans have long come to believe are the things you need to be secure economically: To own a home, to have a car in the driveway, to send your kids to school, to retire safely and securely, and to have healthcare.”
“The Riches of This Land” explores the birth of the American middle class after World War II and the forces that have caused it to stagnate over the last few decades. But too many people use nostalgia for the middle class of the 1950s as a subtext for racist, sexist policies — for many Trump voters, “Make America Great Again,” for instance, almost certainly calls back to a whiter, more unequal time.
“When I was a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, you heard all these stories about the great middle class,” Tankersley said. “It was very sepia-toned, and I think there’s a real danger of falling into that trap of just comparing