Meet our election experts: Kevin Leicht, Sociology

Kevin Leicht, sociology professor

Photo by Bill Adams.

The middle class stands front and center among Kevin Leicht’s academic interests.

Leicht, chair of the Department of Sociology in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is an expert on political sociology. He has researched and published a book about how the state of the middle class affects elections, how politicians communicate to the middle class, and middle class issues.

“I enjoy studying the middle class because I’m a product of it,” Leicht says. “I became interested in this topic because I see a way of life disappearing as a result of conscious choices we are making.”

Leicht’s teaching focuses on political communication, elections, tax and fiscal policy, and comparative politics. He holds various roles—director of the Iowa Social Science Research Center and co-director of the UI Institute for Inequality Studies among them. Outside the classroom, Leicht gives presentations about the changing economic and social landscape of the United States. He speaks with various newspapers, magazines, and radio stations…and on this occasion, with fyi.

Why did you become interested in researching middle class issues?
I became more interested in research on politics during the early and mid-1980s, when there were big economic changes afoot and steady manufacturing jobs were being destroyed. At that time I was a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State University, and became very interested in why politicians who talked about free markets seemed willing to provide virtually any form of economic assistance to lure businesses to their state. This interest turned into a long-term collaboration with Craig Jenkins at Ohio State on the overall economic and social consequences of the state governments engaging in these activities.

My work on middle class issues evolved from that original research program. I was skeptical of the idea that the economic policies started in the 1980s at the federal and state levels would help working Americans. In my book Post-Industrial Peasants: The Illusion of Middle Class Prosperity, Scott Fitzgerald and I laid out the evidence that the American middle class was living an illusion. The things that identify people as middle class—home ownership, cars, and college educations—were being paid for with easily available credit advanced by lenders who didn’t have to bear the risk of the loans they were advancing. This credit became an economic and political substitute for steady and rising wages and earnings.

What is the current state of the middle class?
Overall, not good. The aftermath of the housing bubble and record number of home foreclosures have permanently damaged the wealth accumulation of an entire generation of Americans.

Consumer debt is dropping, which is a good thing, but much of that drop is happening because lenders are writing off debts as uncollectable. Consumer confidence is at the lowest level it has been for a generation, and credit is not available for many who would have been evaluated as good credit risks in earlier years.

College graduates are facing a labor market that is as bad or worse than the labor market of the early 1980s, and there is abundant evidence that the inability to make a strong start in the labor market after school permanently affects lifetime earnings, job prospects, and wealth and accumulation.

Rising income inequality, a tax system that openly favors unearned income and punishes earnings from wages, and a political system thick with lobbyists representing financial services and banks mean the traditional sources of support that people could look to during bad economic times are not there.

How will the state of the middle class affect the 2012 election?
Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are reflections of widespread dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. While the messages of both groups are often muddled, amorphous, and contradictory, they do reflect a general sense that our political and economic systems have lost any sense of fairness.

Historically, the party of the president usually takes the fall for economic numbers that look like ours right now. If there isn’t substantial improvement in unemployment, job creation, wages and earnings, and consumer spending, President Obama will be in trouble. What isn’t clear is whether the Republicans can produce a coherent alternative. Both developments make the outcome of the 2012 election very difficult to predict. We could very well end up with Romney as president and a House and Senate that are Democratic.

How do politicians communicate to the middle class?
The major vehicle for communicating with the middle class for the past 30 years has been to deny that America has social classes. The major vehicle for avoiding this subject is to engage in culturally divisive rhetoric that doesn’t tie social differences between people to income, wealth, or to claim that a lack of income and wealth result from cultural inferiority.

Politicians love to communicate to the middle class—about anything other than jobs and money.

How much has changed about the middle class since your aforementioned book was published in 2007?
The most fundamental change happened as a result of the 2008 recession. Once the credit bubble burst, the mass illusion that consumption could be based on borrowing rather than earning was exposed as just that—an illusion. This has led to a lot of soul searching and contemplation. Some of that is expressed in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, but much of it is expressed in subtle, day-to-day changes in behavior: less consumption, paying down credit cards, saving money, and attempting to embrace lifestyles that revolve less around material goods. Whether all that can jell into a coherent political force is the million-dollar question.