international analysis and commentary

The American middle class: reality or just TV

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Against the backdrop of Alaska’s never-ending succession of gleaming lakes, pristine forests and snow-capped mountains, and surrounded by her loud and telegenic family, the state’s former governor, GOP vice-presidential candidate, and Tea Party darling Sarah Palin, traverses glaciers, rock climbs, and kayaks, all the while shuttling back and forth from the TV studio built in the back of her Wasilla home so that she can appear as a commentator on Fox News.

This is the gist of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, a reality TV show which premiered three weeks ago on the cable network TLC. Although TLC brands it as non-political, this 8-episode series is, really, a well-disguised but not-so-subtle infomercial, in which Palin generously imparts her ideas, political and otherwise, upon viewers. Palin’s stroke of genius here is that she doesn’t have to pay for this extended campaign ad, but is instead paid to appear in it – an estimate of  $250,000 a week according to Forbes.

As the Palins fish for wild salmon, for example, on a remote lake hundreds of miles from their home, they are enthralled by the view of two brown bear cubs playing ashore. Until, that is, “mama bear” enters angrily on the scene, almost attacking their small motorboat. “I love watching these mama bears, they’ve got a nature, yeah, that humankind could learn from,” reflects Palin later on, in a poorly concealed reference to the crop of conservative female candidates she has taken to call “mama grizzlies”. “She’s trying to show her cubs, ‘Nobody’s gonna do it for ya. You get out there and do it yourself, guys’,” adds Palin, translating in bear-language her strongly-held belief that government can do nothing for you. 

At another juncture, while sitting in the yard of her striking two-story home right on Lake Lucille, Palin charges against journalist Joe McGinniss, who is writing a book about her and has rented the house next door so that he can watch the Palins up close. To block McGinniss’ view, Palin’s husband Todd built a 14-foot-high fence on one side of the house. “By the way, I thought that was a good example,” she says, “What we just did, others could look and say, ‘Oh, this is what we need to do to secure our nation’s border’.”

Although Palin’s political ambitions remain fuzzy, it has become clear over the course of the last couple of weeks that she is at least considering a run for the White House in 2012 (she confessed as much in a recent interview with Barbara Walters on the ABC network).

On top of the show, her Fox News appearances, and her family’s long-reach on all-things-TV (her second-oldest daughter Bristol has been a fixture this fall season as a participant on the hit television program Dancing with the Stars), Palin also just came out with a new book, America by Heart: Reflections on Faith, Family and Flag, which according to reviews is an expanded version of her standard stump speech.  In America, Sarah Palin is anywhere, and everywhere, you look. This is Palin’s highly-choreographed strategy to cash in on her current celebrity status and, simultaneously, reach out to as wide an audience as possible, portraying herself as a rugged, self-reliant frontier mother.

What is even more striking about Sarah Palin’s Alaska, however, is the way this forty-six year-old self-described middle-class housewife and mother of five happily lends a hand to the growing distortion of the American dream narrative, depicting an image of the “middle-class America” that never truly was.

Palin is the perfect incarnation of pop culture in the age of reality TV shows, a format of entertainment that tells viewers they are watching the real lives of average people, while, instead, they witnessing highly scripted interactions of improbable but ambitious climbers of the celebrity ladder.

Sarah Palin is anything but your typical middle-class housewife. This claim may have held true years ago, when she first became involved in local Alaska politics while her husband spent several months out of the year working on the state’s oil fields, and when nobody knew who the Palins were. But it is no longer the case. Since she quit the governorship in 2009, Palin has earned, according to an estimate by Forbes, around $10 million. The show, with its adventurous and costly journeys into the wilderness, clarifies instead that there is nothing average about them.

Sarah Palin’s Alaska, like much of TV nowadays (Jersey Shore, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), embodies the shiny but highly unlikely American fantasy of the “rags-to-riches” story, not the less fancy but more attainable middle-class dream of financial stability, limited but secure wealth which affords home ownership, healthcare, retirement, good education for the children and some form of entertainment. With the consequence that Americans have been led to believe that middle-class  life entails more than they have and can afford.

It is no surprise, then, that confronted with this small-screen depiction of the middle class, the real American middle class has taken on increasing amounts of debt in order to pay for more extravagant lifestyles, making it poorer in the long run.

The Bruce family from Anthem, Arizona, the subject of Downsized, a new reality TV show from the cable network WETV, fits the bill.

Todd and Laura Bruce head a blended family of nine, comprising Todd’s two children and Laura’s five from previous marriages. For a time after their wedding, Todd ran a successful general contracting business, which he had recently started and which took off like a rocket thanks to Arizona’s booming real estate market. Until, of course, the bubble burst. Todd’s business crashed, and the family, faced with bankruptcy and financial ruin (they lost their home and a second investment condo bought at the height of the boom), was forced to make ends meet on a much tighter budget.

The show has been said to portray the Bruces’ depressing loss of their middle-class life. The truth is that Downsized is as much a tale of this family’s financial collapse as it is of their previous swift rise above the ranks of the middle class, a climb made possible by an economy fueled by that same kind of debt that, in the long run, made them go bust.

Through his general contracting business, only three years old, Todd Bruce made, at the peak of the real estate bubble in 2008, $1.5 million. As he says on camera, “to ease the transition” of the couple’s children into a new joint family, they were spending then to the tune of $15,000 to $18,000 a month. When the economy began crumbling and Bruce’s business stopped being as profitable, the family took a while to adjust, so much that Todd chose to meet his payroll with a credit card (thus heavily indebting himself) and went through all of his and his wife’s retirement savings, even borrowing $3,000 from the children, before ‘downsizing’ the family’s lifestyle.

At the peak of their wealth, the Bruces had become convinced that they had suddenly acquired permanent membership to a much higher income bracket than they belonged to, believing that this newly attained status entitled them to living large, in spite of the fact that it may not have been sustainable in the long run. The Bruces have now been sucked back into the real middle class, which is truly suffering.

Laura Bruce’s dismissive take on her job as a first grade, public school teacher, exemplifies the growing difficulties some Americans have in accepting their middle-class status for what it is. She says that her $40,000 a year salary is so little she doesn’t consider it as work but rather, volunteering.

The truth is that the median household income in America is pegged at about $50,000 per year. Even accounting for geographical differences (the same sum in New York City or in rural or small-town Alabama means very different things), experts tend to define as “middle class”, incomes from anywhere between $25,000 and $100,000 a year. This is far from the million-plus earnings the Bruces, an otherwise surprisingly decent bunch if compared to other reality-TV characters, seemed to have quickly come to consider normal, or Sarah Palin’s current income and related lifestyle.

Tragically, the American middle class, having lost its sense of self due to the perceptions promoted by popular entertainment and the mounting peer pressure to consume ever-increasing amounts of goods no matter the cost, is endangering its own survival in order to dream larger.

In America, the income gap between the rich and the poor has been steadily expanding over the course of the last three decades. Today, the top 1% of earners control 34% of the country’s wealth.  This is, partially, the consequence of the loss of low-to-middle skilled jobs (particularly in the manufacturing industry) that used to be the backbone of the American middle class but are now progressively disappearing, only to reappear, with much lower wages in the developing world. However, this is also the result of a long series of policy choices that, with the surprising support of middle-class citizens in an identity crisis, have bent the tax structure to benefit the wealthy over average Americans.

Which brings us back to the Palins and the Bruces. Never mind that Alaska receives more federal money per capita than any other state in the union and that the Palins’ beginnings greatly benefited from this system – after all Sarah Palin was on the government payroll first as the mayor of Wasilla and then as the governor of Alaska. And never mind that the Bruces are on government-disbursed food stamps and that Laura Bruce’s job as a teacher probably pays for healthcare (this issue is not explicitly addressed in the series). Both families seem to regard themselves as laboring alone to achieve, protect or re-attain their middle-class status, which was not middle class to begin with.

Although only 6% of Americans make more than $97,000 a year, Congress, in particular the Republicans, seems reticent to let a host of tax cuts, passed under the administration of former President George W. Bush, expire for incomes above $200,000 (for an individual) or $250,000 (for a family) because, many say, this would negatively affect small businesses and the middle class, or their own interpretation of it. They would rather cut programs like Social Security, which have historically allowed the real middle class to flourish.

Perhaps America should start by redefining the meaning of middle class. This country can no longer afford to follow the lead of reality TV.