What’s in a Word?

Each day, political claims and terminology—astonishing or at least remarkable—pop up in the media. Consider two such current terms: "middle class" and "populism."

In the wake of the Massachusetts senatorial election, a sudden cascade of speeches and press releases by President Obama and his surrogates claim that the president is fighting to "rebuild the middle class." But it is not at all clear what is meant by "middle class." For more than a year, President Obama defined middle class as people making up to $250,000 a year—promising not to raise their taxes (at one point) and also promising to lower them (at another point). He did not say what the dollar threshold was—that is to say, the income level that puts one in the "lower class."

Last week, Obama went to a "working class" city, Lorain, Ohio, where he presented a laundry list of things he intended to do: create jobs, lower taxes, provide help for daycare costs, and more. His advisors selected this city because it received a significant share of "stimulus" funds—presumably, then, a friendly audience—and also because the state’s Democrat governor needs help for re-election.

Those of us who know cities like Lorain know that its citizens view anyone making over $100,000 a year, much less $250,000 a year, as being "rich"—surely beyond the middle class. In fact, average income in Lorain is closer to $40,000 a year.

Someone hearing the president talk about "class," middle or otherwise, might wonder in which class Obama sees himself. For the past few years he and his wife have made more than a million dollars a year. In Lorain and in almost any other city in America, that kind of income would place one in the "upper class."
Of course, very few people openly say they are "upper class"—at least not in public! Beyond money, attitudes can place one in a particular class in the public mind. Speaking of which, a finely tuned ear can detect in Obama’s speeches an Ivy League ring or bias. Consider again his magnanimous announcement that he has arrived to "rebuild the middle class."

Likely, most middle class people do not think they need a president to "rebuild" their lives. In fact, polls show that the precise message of the Massachusetts senatorial election was a nationwide rejection of the president’s far-left programs to rescue (read: "rebuild") America. That message is one that President Obama and his advisors apparently have not figured out yet.

In addition to a muddled use of "middle class" during the past months, recent weeks have seen a sudden rise in the term "populism," or "populist"—usually in a derogatory and negative way. Strikingly, Obama himself, a few days after the Massachusetts election, claimed that the motivation for voters in electing Scott Brown was the same motivation that elected Obama himself in 2008—implying that it was a populist motivation. Some of Obama’s advisors and many of his defenders have referred to vocal protests against Obama’s programs, especially Obama-care, as populist expressions. They intend the word, of course, to be a "put-down."

Here is an important point. There is some confusion among media people and Obama advisors as to the meaning of "populism." They view those so-described as uneducated, radical-right hayseeds who really do not know what is good for America.

The fact of the matter, however, is that populist protests have an honorable heritage in America. The term has its roots in an amalgam of rural protests from the 1870s to the 1890s, culminating in the Peoples Party Platform, presented in Omaha, Nebraska in 1892. Most of its planks were subsequently adopted by the major parties by 1920, including direct election of senators, child-labor laws, and a federal income tax. Moreover, other expressions of grass-roots protests have appeared from time to time. Apparently, opposition to Obama’s far-left programs has generated similar protests.

"Populist" protests are typically inspired by certain elements: One, protesters view people in power as self-appointed elite who pose a danger to their basic interests. Two, they view the elite as possessing a plan that will rob them—a sovereign people under the Constitution—of their rights, values, voice, and prosperity. It is such elements that motivate citizens powerfully.

Finally, populist protests also are expressions of fundamental rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech, assembly, and the freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances. Ruling elites, media talking heads, and desperate politicians who ridicule those who exercise these rights show contempt for the most basic element in the American political tradition: protests arising from the people themselves.

— Dr. L. John Van Til is a Fellow for Law & Humanities with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.