On June 10, I attended a forum at Town Hall in Seattle called, "Is Puget Sound losing its middle class?" It wasn't an objective analysis of demographic or economic trends. It was a pep rally put on by locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. Last week, they headed into renewed negotiations with the big grocery chains and were rallying support for what they called their "Share the Success" campaign. The gist of the meeting was to frame the union's agenda as a middle-class agenda and to place it within the context of struggling everyday families. It's about wages, yes, but also about family leave, health care, and flexible hours. The audience was a sea of faces of the people who help you down at the grocery store – I recognized a clerk from my neighborhood Red Apple. These are folks feeling the crunch of Puget Sound's so-called prosperity, the prosperity that makes it impossible for people making $50,000 to buy a median-priced house. "Share the success" is just another way of saying "share the wealth," and it's a lot more polite than "eat the rich." What really struck me was how far labor and liberals have come in getting over their ambivalence about the middle class. I mean, this union rally wasn't about poverty, the working poor, or the working class. Type the word "proletariat" into the search on the UFCW website and you'll get zero hits. Labor radicalism is largely dead in this country; that's not news. Labor's move to the center has been long coming and was boosted here decades ago by Teamsters like Dave Beck and over time by Boeing's white-collar unions. It is boosted now by a labor movement seeing where its future is: in unionizing service workers, since factory work has been shipped overseas. But time was when the political left disdained the middle class for bourgeois materialism, suburban sprawl, and nuclear families. That suspicion continues among some urban Democrats who sneer at middle American values, claiming the heartland is filled with rubes, fools, and hate-mongers. Many environmentalists routinely attack middle America's SUV selfishness and consumerism. But courting – not excoriating – the middle class has been a winning strategy for Democrats, especially since the 1990s. Bill Clinton, aided by strategist James Carville, was elected in 1992 largely because of he appealed to "the forgotten middle class" and reminded them where their economic interests were. This undercut the usual GOP appeal to middle class fears by invoking God, gays, and guns. What Clinton and Carville sussed out was that a growing number of Americans were getting screwed from both economic ends. Not only were the rich getting richer under Ronald Reagan and George Bush I, the middle class was having to carry the burden of the welfare state. The mood was captured in former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips' 1993 book Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans and the Decline of Middle Class Prosperity. The Clinton path to saving the middle class lay down a Third Way centrism that tried to balance conservative policies, like a balanced budget and welfare reform, with progressive ones, like pushing universal health care and investment in education. This centrist approach drove the left crazy, and they accused Clinton of pandering or worse. But after six-plus years of George Bush II, with the economic gap between the haves and have-nots widening to pre-Depression levels, and New Gilded Age excess threatening the middle class' ability to tread water, the left is finally willing to embrace the middle class. The apostasy of the Clinton years is now conventional wisdom among liberals and labor. (It is also, still, the talk among more-conservative Democrats and populist independents, as evidenced by the "Lou Dobbs Democrat" phenomenon.) In a 2005 USA Today guest column, former Clinton advisors Carville and Paul Begala argued: ... [W]e should place middle-class jobs and middle-class values at the heart of our economic policy. Middle-class Americans are working hard and playing by the rules, but they are being ripped off at every turn. They need economic reform. It worked in '06 when Democratic moderates were elected in GOP-leaning districts and helped the party take Congress. The Iraq debacle helped, but so did a middle class centered economic populism. So the winning theme of '92 is relevant 15 years later. In fact, more relevant. The middle class was split between Clinton, Bush I, and Ross Perot in the 1990s, the nation nearly evenly divided politically during the Gore vs. Bush II and Kerry vs. Bush II campaigns. But middle class attitudes have continued to shift significantly in ways that Democratic analysts believe make them more susceptible to liberal economic arguments about economic fairness and equity. In a word, it's pessimism. Ruy Teixeira, in "Will the Real Middle Class Please Stand Up" in The Democratic Strategist, reports on the attitude shift: ... [A] June, 2006 Penn Schoen Berland poll for the Aspen Institute found 90 percent agreeing that "25 years ago, if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be able to have a solid middle class life", compared to only 49 percent who agreed this characterization was true today. ... And perhaps most startling, 80 percent agreed that "Today, with the costs of housing, health care, education and self-financed retirement, a middle class life has become unaffordable for most people." In other words, the middle class has placed itself on the endangered species list. No wonder liberals are paying attention. A deeper look is offered in "Talking Past Each Other: What Everyday Americans Really Think (and Elites Don't Get) About the Economy," a December 2006 report by David Kusnet, Lawrence Mishel, and Teixeira for the progressive Economic Policy Institute: Most people are pessimistic about how national economic trends are affecting people like them. They are concerned about insecurity, inequality, and the difficulty of attaining and maintaining a middle class standard of living. But, at the same time, most people are optimistic about their own economic prospects and their families' futures. They still believe that, if people study hard, work hard, and sacrifice for their families, they can achieve the American Dream. In general, conservatives have been out of touch with American attitudes by under-estimating people's pessimism about the national economy. Meanwhile, liberals have been out of touch by under-estimating people's optimism about their own situations. To deal with this, they suggest a smarter strategy for setting a progressive agenda in terms the middle class can understand and accept: [F]or public officials, political candidates, and leaders of business, labor, and advocacy groups, the challenge in discussing economic issues is not only to be persuasive, but also to increase their political importance to the general public or segments of the population – or, as public opinion analysts often say, to "raise the salience" of these concerns. This is especially important for advocates of the economic policies favored by liberals and the labor movement. For several decades, most public opinion surveys have found that a substantial majority of Americans favor raising the minimum wage, extending health insurance, increasing funding for public education, college opportunity and job training and retraining, and making the tax system more progressive. But these proposals–and the candidates who support them–have not always prevailed, often because their opponents have raised other issues that have seemed more urgent to many voters. Therefore, for those who favor many elements of a liberal economic agenda, the challenge is not simply to persuade people to support these proposals but also to make them more urgent to those who are already inclined to support these issues. The UFCW rally in Seattle earlier this month was right out of this playbook. The question, "Is Puget Sound losing it middle class?" spoke to something many in the region are worried about and "raised the salience" of the union's agenda. Shouldn't Safeway be sharing rewards with workers like you and me who are getting crushed by health-care costs? Let's do something, because we're we're all spotted owls now. Not only has the left jumped on the middle class bandwagon, but some are riding it toward the New Jerusalem. Liberal radio host Thom Hartmann, who wrote Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class, lays out an agenda that will both secure the middle class – and save American democracy (and undoubtedly please many in the UFCW): First, we must recognize and reclaim the government programs that create a middle class: Return to the American people our ownership of the military, the prison system, and the ballot box. Fight for free and public education that encourages critical thinking, historical knowledge, and a love of learning in each child. Combat the No Child Left Behind Act and the belief that education is a commodity that can be tested. Fight for a national single-payer health-care system based on Medicare. Fight for Social Security – do not let it be privatized or co-opted. Fight for progressive taxation: reinstate a rate of 35 percent on corporations and a rate of 70 percent on the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans – and use the money to pay back the Social Security system and to fund an economic investment program. Fight for a living wage and for the right of labor to organize. Fight for a national energy program that puts people and the planet – not Big Oil – first. When America has a strong middle class, democracy will follow. Without a strong middle class, says Hartmann, we're "spiraling down toward serfdom." So, in the new progressive thinking, it's not just the survival of the middle class that's important for its own sake, it's crucial to the survival of democracy itself. And for the middle class and democracy to survive, it needs labor. In fact, labor is the engine of middle class prosperity and quality of life, according to economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. What it can deliver is the ability to bargain on behalf of workers for the American Dream. Who'd have thunk it. Saving the middle class is now Job 1 – a union job at that.