In the 1970s, there was a popular, tongue-in-cheek poster. It read: “Class Warfare: A Return to Traditional Values.” The point was clear. Issues of class are central to American politics, as abhorrent as they may be to Americans’ self-image and the narrative they tell themselves about their history and society.
Recent political rhetoric and polling data suggest class remains a salient political and economic issue today. To ignore such class divisions in the current budget debate is to live in denial.
Charges that Democrats are engaging in class warfare have long been boilerplate in many Republicans’ speeches.
In May, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., suggested President Obama and Democratic critics of his budget proposal were “sowing social unrest and class envy” by pushing a tax increase on the wealthiest individuals in order to help address the deficit and debt. Ryan called such proposals “class warfare”.
Not be outdone, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., earlier this month blasted the president’s framing of the deficit-reduction debate as, you guessed it, “class warfare.”
The charge of class warfare resonates negatively with average Americans because they have long been taught that their country is a classless society. It was Alexis de Tocqueville, no less, in his Democracy in America, who proclaimed that in America “there are no longer any classes.”
But reality has the unsettling habit of contradicting the most deeply embedded notions. Economic class interests do divide Americans—even Republicans, in the current debate over the economy, debt, spending, and taxation.
In his 1926 short story The Rich Boy, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in the response to America’s recent economic troubles. A Pew survey in early June found that among those surveyed with an income of $75,000 a year or more (who account for a quarter of the population), only 41 percent saw the economy as doing poorly, while among those who made less than $30,000 (accounting for a third of the population), 50 percent said the economy was not faring well.
Not surprisingly, the way the rich see the economy reflects their own life experience. Over the past year, Pew found that 48 percent of Americans who made more than $75,000 per year got a pay raise. Only 30 percent of those making less than $30,000 saw their pay go up. Just 20 percent of upper-income Americans expected a pay cut over the next 12 months, versus 37 percent of lower-income earners. And only 12 percent of the well-off said it was likely they will be laid off in the next year. Three times as many (36 percent) harbored such fears among those making under $30,000.
It is little wonder, then, why Pew found that 57 percent of those in upper-income brackets said their personal finances were good. Only 13 percent of the worst-off Americans were sanguine about their finances.
The economic downturn since 2008 has been class warfare. The casualties have been the poor.
Not surprisingly, the rich and the poor differ on what to do about current economic problems. The surprise is that this division is most apparent within the Republican Party itself. In a June survey, Pew found that, by 63 percent to 29 percent, Republicans making $75,000 or more thought that it was more important to reduce the budget deficit than to keep Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are. Low-income Republicans held just the opposite view, again by 2-to-1, 62 percent to 33 percent. By contrast, there were no differences in the views of Democrats across income categories.
Similarly, by 64 percent to 33 percent, upper-income Republicans thought states should be able to cut back on eligibility for Medicaid to deal with budget problems. And a plurality of that same group, 48 percent, thought that people on Medicare need to be responsible for more of the costs of their health care in order to keep the program financially secure. By overwhelming margins, no other income categories of any political persuasion held such views.
Congressional Republicans oppose tax increases and support spending cuts. The economics of those positions can be debated ad nauseam, and have been throughout the debt-ceiling debate. But polling data show the politics are clear. They serve the interests of a particular class: rich Republicans.
This article appears in the July 21, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.