The ideal of an independent, originally agrarian middle class rather than an enslaved peasantry was the American ideal, at least until recently. All politicians still praise the middle class, but few have sought or found ways to preserve it in a radically changing globalized world.
The result is the emergence of a new American peasantry, millions of Americans who own little or no property. The new majority have little or no savings. Fifty-eight percent of Americans have less than $ 1,000 in the bank. A missed paycheck leaves them destitute, completely unable to repay a large debt. Most of what they buy, from cars to electronics, is charged to credit cards. Credit card debt is over $ 8,000 per household and over $ 2,000 per individual – paid in monthly installments at average annual interest rates between 15% and 19%, at a time when the Most mortgages are generally less than 4%.
Such short-term debt is often roughly on par with the payments and sharecropping arrangements that premodern peasants once made with the lords and made it impossible for the serfs to exercise their political independence or hope for mobility. ascending. The main contemporary difference, of course, is that the modern American peasant is the beneficiary of a sophisticated technological society that allows him instant communications, advanced health care, television and computer entertainment, cheap food, and a state- social welfare. These material blessings often mask an otherwise shrinking middle class without being convinced that it is in control of its own destiny.
A fifth of America receives direct public aid from the government. More than half of the country depends on some sort of state grant or money transfer from the government, which is why about 60% of Americans receive more in government payments than they pay in federal taxes on. income, in health care fees, tax credits and exemptions, at the federal level. guaranteed student and business loans, housing supplements, food subsidies, disability and unemployment assistance, and legal aid.
Such social isolation, along with science fueled by market capitalism, has succeeded in ending starvation, death in their 30s and 40s and, for the most part, chronic malnutrition, as well as ensuring access to a multitude of hardware accessories.
But if not, 21st century American “peasants” – currently perhaps around 46% of the population – typically die with a net worth of less than $ 10,000, receiving and bequeathing little or no inheritance.
Drive on El Camino Real on the perimeter of Stanford University’s elite campus and observe hundreds of people living in roadside caravans like the Cairo poor, or tour the side streets near the headquarters of Google Mountain View, where thousands of people live in their cars, or walk among the homeless on Tony University Avenue in Palo Alto. Then juxtapose their lifestyles with estates in nearby Woodside, Atherton or Portola Valley, and 20-year-old Mercedes-Benz and BMWs parked in student grounds at Stanford University.
The natural historical referent for this dichotomy is certainly not the booming middle classes after WWII. Instead, the picture is one of the mansions and dungeons of medieval Europe amid peasant huts outside the walls.
For all intents and purposes, it’s nearly impossible for young families to buy a home anywhere in the California 500-mile Progressive Coastal Corridor, from San Diego to Berkeley, or in the greater Portland and Seattle areas. Much the same is true in metropolitan and suburban areas from Boston to Washington, DC Whatever this new bifurcated culture – and it’s new and different from half a century ago – it isn’t. no longer as conducive to classical citizenship.
Even those in the middle class who can be thrifty, who save a portion of their income and develop modest passbook savings accounts, are now targeted by cheap institutionalized interest. The result of massive and chronic annual budget deficits of trillion dollars – the national debt now hovers around $ 30 trillion – and the often-nervous Federal Reserve’s zero interest rates is the destruction of all interest income on savings accounts.
The modest, middle-class citizen saver therefore faces daunting options simply to preserve the value of their money. He may embark on risky real estate speculation or invest in a booming stock market fueled not by business performance per se, but often by those with nowhere to park their money. So middle-class families, for safety’s sake, often keep their modest savings in passbook accounts or buy federal bonds, where interest payments below 1% do not cover erosion in their principal’s value. due to annual inflation.
Yet American citizenship has always been different from the Western tradition found in Europe for the past three centuries. The founding of America saw a whole range of newly expanded rights, responsibilities and privileges for the vast majority of the resident population. This new birth of citizenship at the end of the 18th century arose in part because of an almost unlimited supply of land, in part because colonial America lacked many traditions of the European continent in matters of class distinctions, d eldest, peasantry and serfdom, in part because of parliamentary traditions. that Britain had established in North America, and in part because of the constitutional protections of the newly formed United States. America would soon become the freest and most equal society in the history of civilization.
The point is not that late 18th-century America was born perfect, or that it could even come close to what we now embrace as 21st-century moral values. On the contrary, the new United States was different, or rather superior, to most contemporary nations. Indeed, almost alone among governments, America had found a mechanism that would allow constant self-criticism, legal amendments to its founding documents, and moral improvement. Such a change came without the need for collective suicide or permanent revolution – and yet within the confines of constitutional absolutes that transcended time and space, and all of this was only made possible by an empowered and autonomous middle class.
This article is taken from Victor Davis Hanson’s book “The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America”, To appear in Basic Books. Hanson is a senior researcher at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
This story appears in the November issue of Déseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.