A Gallup poll in 2005 showed that while only 2% of Americans described themselves as "rich" but 31% thought it very likely or somewhat likely they would become one of the rich. A Pew survey in 2008 revealed that 91% Americans believe they are either middle class, upper-middle class or lower-middle class.
But trends and ongoing events are forcing a reappraisal of that self-image. Social mobility has stalled; wages have been stagnant for a generation. As the prospect of becoming rich diminishes, many are simply trying not to become poor. Inequality of income and wealth has been more readily accepted in the US because equality of opportunity has long been assumed. The absence of the latter raises serious questions about the existence of the former.
A Pew survey in 2008 – before the banking system imploded – showed that fewer Americans than at any time in 50 years thought they were moving forward in life. The number of those who don't believe you can get ahead by working hard has doubled in 10 years. Half the country thinks its best days are behind it.
Democratic politicians pretend not to take sides, casting the national conversation not in terms of bosses and workers or wages and profits but of rich and poor. The problem with this, explains Michael Zweig, the director of the centre for the study of working-class life at the State University of New York, is that "most people want to be rich and most of them don't know what rich is. If you put class in terms of power, you start to get to the source of the problem."
Union members do generally enjoy better benefits. That's the whole point of being in a union: to improve your living standards through collective action. And that is precisely why Republicans like Walker want to crush them. Politicians like Walker are making it clear which side of the class divide they stand on. A growing number of Americans, it seems though, have begun to understand that this is precisely the problem and are discovering the source of their own power.
Last weekend's demonstrations do not necessarily reflect a new sense of class consciousness, but they do suggest the potential for it. The idea of a class system where only a handful can ever be truly wealthy intrudes awkwardly on a culture rooted in notions of self-advancement, personal reinvention and rugged individualism, even if it is closer to reality. Old habits die hard. The weekend protests were organised under the banner "Save the American Dream".
Gary Younge in The Guardian