The Evolution of Class Warfare in America

Some people believe that when Marx and Engels began The Communist Manifesto (1848) with "[t]he history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles," they were the first to call attention to the importance of class conflict in politics. 

That is wrong.  Class struggles occurred throughout ancient, medieval, and modern European history, and authors like Thomas Jefferson, David Ricardo, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, to name just three who ante-date The Communist Manifesto, wrote about them (in 1787, 1817, and 1840, respectively).

Class conflict -- albeit historically more muted -- has also been a feature of American politics.  Indeed, one of the most succinct statements of the economic -- i.e., class -- basis of politics can be found in James Madison's The Federalist #10 (11/22/1787).  Writing about the origins of "factions" -- which are akin to political parties -- Madison wrote that "the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.  Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. ... The regulation of these ... interests forms the principal task of modern legislation[.]"

Partisan differences between social classes have been a feature of American electoral politics since at least the 1930s, when FDR's "New Deal Coalition" -- which was made up partly by people from the lower social orders -- faced off against the wealthy and upper-middle classes, many of whom backed the GOP.  FDR's coalition began to come apart in the late 1940s and early 1950s but was mostly resurrected in the 1964 election.  By the time George W. Bush won in 2000 and 2004, the New Deal coalition was gone.

Barack Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012, however, were marked by class conflict's resurgence.  Harking back to FDR, who may have been his inspiration, Obama's appeals to class warfare are more blatant than those of most Democrats who ran for the presidency, from Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s to Bill Clinton in the 1990s.  One also sees differences in how working-class individuals respond to appeals to class warfare by comparing blue-collar workers' opinions about inequality in the late 1950s with those of many persons from the lower classes today.

To anticipate the argument, many contemporary Democrats, especially the Obamians, are much more transparent in using class warfare to advance their agenda than were their partisan forebears (other than FDR and, perhaps, Truman).  Sadly, appeals to class warfare fall on more receptive ears than would have been the case 50 or 60 years ago.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's penchant for appealing to class warfare to buttress his "New Deal" policies is well-known.  Whether calling for higher income tax rates on the well-to-do or attacking "economic royalists," Roosevelt frequently used the bully pulpit to heighten class antagonisms.

Revisionists, such as Amity Shlaes, explain that, although aimed at the downtrodden "forgotten man," New Deal policies actually hindered the economic recovery that could have benefited the lower social orders.  Sadly, however, FDR's frequent appeals to class warfare worked, in no small part, because key Republicans elites seemed oblivious of the fact that the Great Depression undermined the laissez-faire notions that GOP presidents from William McKinley to Calvin Coolidge had used successfully.

Perhaps FDR's most important legacy was to enshrine the notion that the central government, and most especially the president, was the key player in the nation's economic well-being.  (One can trace that idea back to the Progressive tradition, which saw its first successes in Theodore Roosevelt's, and especially Woodrow Wilson's, administrations.)  FDR's legacy was codified by the Employment Act of 1946.    

By the end of the 1970s, however, FDR's legacy had turned to ashes, as it become more and more obvious that, as Ronald Reagan put it in his first Inaugural Address, "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."  Not many years later, Bill Clinton would say, in his 1996 State of the Union Address, "[t[he era of big government is over."

Unhappily, Clinton was mistaken.  Barack Obama's election in 2008 was accompanied by his promise to "fundamentally transform" the United States by creating a European-style welfare state, with big government controlling over half the nation's Gross Domestic Product.  More than any president since FDR, Obama has made explicit appeals to class warfare to advance his agenda.  His calls for raising income taxes on the well-to-do -- defined variously as those making over $250,000 or $200,000 per year or whatever -- are too numerous to cite. 

As his poll numbers have plummeted recently, Obama's appeals to class warfare have become even more blatant -- and some would also say more petulant.  On December 4, 2013, for example, he declared that this generation's "defining challenge" is the growing income inequality between America's richest one percent and the rest of society.

There are multiple challenges to Obama's assertion.  Blogs for The American Thinker by Henry Percy and Rick Moran illustrate why the left's obsession with "income inequality" is misplaced.  Moran cites an op-ed by Robert Grady in The Wall Street Journal (12/22/13) that asserts that the focus on "income inequality" overlooks other, perhaps even more significant, features of wealth that alter America's portrait.  Grady also cites a 2012 article in Policy Review by Kip Hagopian and Lee Ohanian that further details the weaknesses of the left's "income inequality" mania.

If bloviating about "income inequality" by Obama, other left-wing Democrats, and denizens of the mainstream media -- which almost invariably means the same thing -- is misplaced, then why does it work?

Alas, the answer to that query tells us more about significant segments of today's public than it does about those bloviating about "income inequality."

Some Americans have always been jealous because others made more money or lived a tonier lifestyle.  Figures in American history -- read, for example, Henry George's Progress and Poverty (1879) -- and in fiction, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway -- are driven by envy, or at least by ambivalence about others' -- Jay Gatsby's -- wealth.

Appeals to working-class envy of the rich, however, have not always fallen on receptive ears.  In 1959, Robert Lane published "The Fear of Equality" in The American Sociological Review.  That article was based on Lane's in-depth interviews with working-class men in "Eastport" (New Haven), CT.  The gist of Lane's piece is that many of these men found the very notion of equality unsettling.  Rather than being consumed by envy, most wanted to get ahead by dint of their own efforts.  They would have found calls for class warfare offensive.

There seems to have been a significant change in the character of many Americans from the lower social classes.  Motivated, perhaps, by the explosion of entitlement programs since 1960, at least if Nicholas Eberstadt is correct, a not-so-subtle change in the American character has left sizable portions of people from the lower social orders driven by greed and envy. 

These people have learned that being on the government dole, at the expense of those wealthier than they, is no longer a source of embarrassment. 

If that is true, it little wonder that Obama and other leftists wage class warfare.