In America, we talk a lot about the Middle Class. Most of us see ourselves as Middle Class. But who are the Middle Class? What does it mean to be part of this group that all the politicians are trying to woo?
Well, let's go back a bit. In medieval England, there were two basic orders or classes in society. There were nobles and gentry (people with coats of arms and wealth). And there were peasants (serfs, villeins, a few freeholders). One group made the rules and the other obeyed them. The middle class in a feudal society such as England in the 13th Century was made up of a few artisans and merchants who mostly lived in cities or towns that had royal charters. A royal charter meant that the freeholders of that city constituted a self-governing corporation. The electorate wasn't extensive, but it was highly conscious of its need to protect its rights against kings and bishops who might diminish them. Serfs who managed to escape their lot and live as free persons in a chartered town for a year and a day were considered to be free in law as well as in fact. "Town air is free air" the saying went.
The independence of the chartered towns led to the creation of wealth, for those who had no inherited wealth in land nor inherited place in the aristocracy had only the assets their industry could create. But, since each family worked for itself as they decided best, their industry created a lot of wealth. Eventually, the City of London (which is a smaller place and a smaller group than the city of London, if you catch my drift) had enough wealth that it could grant or loan the king money he needed. That made them valuable to those who ran the country. And so the towns and their artisans and merchants and guilds grew.
When America was founded, class divisions were present, though in a far reduced form. Few real nobles wanted to immigrate to America. Most of those who came here came looking for opportunity such as had been denied most people back in Europe. Many of the lower orders -- especially those who agreed to be indentured servants for a term of years to pay for their passage -- helped people America. Yet in this new land, many who were previously poor earned enough money and acquired enough property to rival the burghers of the towns of England. A few became very rich, though after the Revolution, nobility as such became distinctly anti-American.
There are two common theories that explain who the Middle Class are and how they came to be so prominent in America. The first is Karl Weber's idea, known as "the Weber Thesis," that capitalism (which nourishes a strong Middle Class) was encouraged by Protestantism and its idea that all of us are equal before God. Weber especially thought that Calvinism was the engine that set men free to acquire wealth unashamedly. He saw the mercantilism of Great Britain and the early industrialization of places like Glasgow and New England to be indicative of a practical Calvinism.
Those of us who are part of the Wesleyan-Arminian family tell a different tale. The Wesleyan Revival in England and its spread through America brought thousands out of poverty. "Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can" -- as a response to the gift of God in Jesus Christ -- basically created the modern Middle Class in England. Some say it prevented a French-style revolution in Great Britain. The phenomenon whereby spiritual self-improvement yields weath as a by-product, though, was noted long before by medieval monks, who said, "Discipline creates abundance; but abundance, if it be not checked, will destroy discipline." Modern sociologists of religion refer to the phenomenon as Redemption and Lift.
So, America from the beginning was strongly oriented toward rewarding folk who would work hard, or who were trying to be better themselves in character. It was a place where someone could rise in life. Nobility was not aimed at, but wealth was. And wealth was obtainable. Following World War II, "working class" folk saw their standard of living rise so much that they began to see themselves as Middle Class, too. All of which explains why every politician claims that he's going to help the Middle Class. There are lot of Middle Class voters, and a lot of people who'd like to be Middle Class even if they aren't, yet. It's how America defines itself. Despite the presence of both rich and poor, we are a Middle Class nation.