The Political Debate Around “The Middle Class” is Far From Classy

Jennifer Mutton

The Liberal Party, alone, is fighting for middle-class Canadians.” (John McCallum, Liberal, 2015)

“Despite the NDP and the Liberals who have positioned themselves against middle-class families, I am proud that our government is giving money back to each and every family with children in Canada.” (Rob Clarke, Conservative, 2015)

“I am concerned that the Conservatives have essentially launched a war on the middle class. I saw a bumper sticker the last time I was in Washington that said “at least the war on the middle class is going well.” The same could be applied to this country.” (Pat Martin, NDP, 2013)

It has become a popular political trope to parrot sentiments about helping the middle class, especially in the lead up to a federal election. The middle class ostensibly constitutes a vote-rich piece of the Canadian population, and so parties of all political stripes often declare that they are the only ones really operating with the best interests of the middle class in mind. I went through Parliamentary mentions of the phrase “middle class” to examine the debate. How is the middle class defined? Which party best caters to them? And, since the House of Commons plays host to some sensational zingers, how do politicians defame and dismantle their rivals’ claims to represent the middle class?

As it turns out, very little time is spent actually defining the middle class within the House of Commons. Even statistical definitions of the middle class vary. According to Statscan, the middle quintile of Canadian households earn between $41,700 to $61,800 after tax; literally, the middle. But the middle 60 per cent of families earn anywhere between $15,100 and $139,400 after tax — a much wider range. And one economist defines the middle class as those families earning between 75 per cent and 125 per cent of the after-tax median income; in Canadian terms, that would be between $51,000 and $85,000 a year.

And these are just the statistical measures — even more disparate are the qualities of middle class Canadians. They can belong to blue-collar unions or have white-collar jobs, live in picket-fence nuclear families or reside alone, have significant discretionary income or exist barely above the poverty line. Is the middle class a concept that people use to define themselves as neither poor nor rich, or is it an actual group of people with cohesive desires? Nobody knows, and this definitional white noise makes it easy for politicians to claim that their policies are a boon to the middle class, because nearly any subset of the Canadian population can be shoehorned into that category.

NDP MP Peggy Nash has defined a person’s middle class lifestyle as “having a good job that can pay their bills […], that provides benefits for them, and that can help them one day look forward to a secure retirement.” Other NDP MPs classify the middle class as unionized workers, a definition that appeals to the traditional support base of the party: blue-collar workers and organized labour. This allows the NDP to tailor their policies to the middle class and their key voter base simultaneously — a smart move, especially as declining unionization rates and the oft-bemoaned (though possibly spurious) “decline of the middle class” appear to be parallel trends.

The Conservatives, conversely, have little time for definitions, instead preferring to hammer home that the middle class is doing incredibly well. MP Joyce Bateman has stated that “Canada’s middle class has seen increases of about 30 per cent in their take-home income since 1976.” A study published by the New York Times that contends that Canada has the wealthiest middle class in the world is frequently cited by Conservative MPs. Of course, the ruling party has a vested interest in ensuring that the middle class is portrayed as thriving; in their rhetoric, the well-being of the middle class is in direct correlation to Conservative policies and programs instituted over the length of Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Turning back to the opposition, I found many instances of MPs claiming that the middle class is not only not healthy or happy, but that they are falling behind. Precisely “whom” or “what” this group is falling behind is not clear, but the phrase is used copiously by both the NDP and Liberal parties. Liberal MP Ralph Goodale has taken issue with claims of a wealthy middle class, contending that the middle class’ “debt has ballooned to 164 per cent of disposable income … three-quarters do not have a pension, and in 40 per cent of empty nester households their adult children have moved back home.” NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has warned that “for the first time in Canadian history, middle-class wages are declining steadily.” And that New York Times article? MP Adam Vaughn has interpreted the study as saying that “Canada’s middle class has never been more frightened than any other time in the country’s history.”

But how can these disparities exist? Is the House of Commons made up of multiple universes, where contradicting truths can hold simultaneously? On one hand we have the Conservatives and their rosy, happy middle class, and on the other we have the middle class of the opposition parties — a class that is cowed by mounting debt and ignored by Conservative policies.

The truth likely lies in various shades along a continuum, depending on who your “middle class” is. The Conservative policy proposal for income splitting is widely regarded to be a policy beneficial only for the wealthy. But if a healthier middle class is one that sees cuts to the GST and increases in child benefits, then the Conservatives have delivered — and they often reference these policies to remind us precisely of that. Conservative MP Terence Young further bolsters the credibility of the Tories as the middle class’ party by attributing their popularity to a folksy, of-the-people appeal, saying that “most Conservatives are in fact low-income and middle-class people.”

In response, the opposition parties are forced to “out-middle class” the Conservatives. It has become a battle for credibility. For example, NDP MP Peggy Nash cast her party leader as a true-blue middle class member, noting: “Our leader genuinely comes from the middle class. He is a perfect example of someone who has worked hard all his life and has joined the middle class.” Mulcair, with his newly bolstered reputation, then gains the street cred to attack income splitting as “a Conservative tax proposal that fails middle-class families.”

(Worth noting: the base salary of a Canadian Member of Parliament is $163,700, which means that regardless of how low they started, every single MP is now comfortably in the top quintile of Canadian earners. Not surprisingly, that bit of information isn’t often mentioned in the House.)

The Liberals have to establish credibility as a middle class party too, and shed Justin Trudeau’s reputation as the elitist heir to a political dynasty. They like to think of themselves as the originators of the middle class madness that has now infected the political rhetoric. Liberal MP Kevin Lamoreux has managed to surreptitiously call attention to how pervasive the phrase has become while also humbly taking credit for its popularity: “The term “middle class” was not part of the New Democratic vocabulary,” he says, “until the leader of the Liberal Party indicated that it was going to be a major theme going into the 2015 election.” From the Liberal viewpoint, it is Justin Trudeau leading the charge as champion of the middle class. Of course, in the other parties’ eyes, Justin Trudeau is seen as such a spoiled brat that he wouldn’t even begin to understand who the middle class is and what their day-to-day concerns are.

What results from this political pissing contest is very little analysis of the problems that the Canadian middle class is actually facing, or many – if any – useful policy proposals to address those issues. Instead, there is simply a lot of finger pointing. Fortunately, the best part of all this rhetorical sword-swinging is the insults, which are for the most part entirely focused on the perceived class of the targeted politician and not on their actual policies. For brevity, I will list a few of the best examples here.

Best Attacks on Justin Trudeau’s Elitism:

“Middle-class families do not live pampered lifestyles while fleecing charities for thousands of dollars in speaking fees. Middle-class families do not promote easier access to illegal drugs for children or blurt out obscene remarks at charity events.” (Blake Richards, Conservative)

“The Liberals have obviously a very distant connection to the middle class. I often think the closest their leader will ever get to the middle class is when he talks to the mechanic who fixes his Mercedes.” (David Anderson, Conservative)

Best Zinger:

“The Liberals claim that this program is “hurting the middle class.” It seems as though as soon as all the academics and experts dispel their myth that the middle class is being squeezed here, they turn and blame temporary foreign workers. If policy was a chair, they would all be sitting on the floor.” (Ted Opitz, Conservative)

Best Austin Powers Reference:

“Mr. Speaker, suppose Dr. Evil were thinking of ways to trip up the Canadian economy to make life harder for the middle class and prevent our youth from getting jobs. One way he would be doing that would be to shaft one million small businesses, by raising payroll taxes again and again, by slapping a tax hike on their dividends. Oh, but wait, that is what the Conservative Minister of Finance has just done.” (Joyce Murray, Liberal)

Best Use of Shade:

“In part of my research, I was looking up “middle class”. The leader of the third party has been talking about the middle class quite a bit, so he must know a lot about it. His father was the prime minister of Canada and his upbringing was not really in the middle class, but I thought maybe it was his grandfather who instilled the middle class piece in him. I looked in The Canadian Encyclopedia. I know my family and the vast majority of Canadian families are not mentioned in the The Canadian Encyclopedia, but the Trudeau family is. I found out that the former prime minister’s father, the grandfather of the present leader of the Liberal Party, was listed there as being a wealthy businessman from Quebec and part of the elite even back in that generation.” (Mike Wallace, Conservative)

As we draw closer to the upcoming federal election, the political power struggle for the title of ‘middle class champion’ will likely only get snarkier, dirtier, and louder. Attacks on political leaders’ elitism and lack of identification with the middle class already abound. This means that Canadians can look forward to a lot more petty insults and very little actual discussion about what defines the middle class, or how their lives could be improved by government policy.

Jennifer Mutton is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from McGill University. Jennifer is  particularly interested in policy issues related to international trade, social programs, and the labour market.