The Politics of Class

Hannah Godfrey

Class has recently re-emerged as a potent issue in British politics, with a senior politician at the center of the row. Andrew Mitchell, the government’s chief whip until last week, was filmed shouting abuse at policemen outside Downing Street in September, calling them “plebs”, telling them they should know their place, and using other abusive language. Mitchell’s outburst came in response to the police refusing to let him take his bike through the main gate, requesting him to dismount and walk it though the pedestrian gate. The controversy has been ongoing for over a month, although Conservatives will hope it has come to an end now that Mr. Mitchell has resigned.

However, this has been a damaging event for the Prime Minister who, perhaps unwisely, chose to give his support to Mitchell, despite the strength of public (and political) anger against him. In the United Kingdom, where the Conservative Party has traditionally been associated with the upper crust of British society, the apparently classist rantings of a Conservative Member of Parliament have been widely interpreted as demonstrating that his party is out-of-touch with the public.

The class system has always been more entrenched in Britain than in the United States, which is why Andrew Mitchell’s comments have stirred up so much anger among the British public. In a nation which was ruled for centuries by an aristocracy and where working class pride remains strong, “pleb” still raises an emotional response. In the United States, on the other hand, one could be forgiven for thinking that a class system does not exist. The rhetoric of this election appears to assert that all Americans belong to the middle class. America’s history as a nation based on the ideals of meritocracy and republicanism has prevented the development of a truly class-based social system; although social strata clearly exist, they are based mostly on wealth, as opposed to old-fashioned notions of innate superiority.

The American middle class is very hard to define, as almost all Americans appear to want to identify as middle class, regardless of income or lifestyle. Both Mitt Romney and President Obama appear to have identified the cut-off point for the middle class at an income of around $200,000[1]. This seems high when the US Census Bureau placed the median household income for 2011 at $50,000[2]. The squeeze on middle class incomes, and the debate over whether high earners (the upper class) should contribute more in taxes have become central themes of this election cycle, to the extent that politicians are in danger of forgetting the people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. In this way, at least, it appears that “lower-class” has become a dirty word in American politics.