Lennard DavisDistinguished Professor – University of Illinois at Chicago
Posted: 9/19/11 01:10 PM ET
It’s been a tough week for Republicans, and they are crying. President Obama has decided to get tough and go after millionaires, nailing them to the financial cross by having them pay taxes at the rate that everyone else has to. And what exactly are the Republicans crying? “Class Warfare!” The term is being wailed from every Sunday morning television station to every press conference. Stick a microphone in front of a Republican and you’ll hear the term accompanied by the tears of outrage that job creation will come to a halt under the grinding oppression of over taxation.
For anyone following political rhetoric, this cry from Republicans is nothing new. George Herbert Walker Bush used it in 1990 when he spoke at the Cowboy Hall of Fame, earning his spurs as a defender of the working-class man when he decried what he called this “class warfare garbage” being slung at high noon by them darned, dandified Democrats. Coincidentally, he was speaking about a stalled budget in which conservatives wouldn’t raise taxes and progressives wanted to preserve social programs.
It is ironic that Republicans, who always deny that class exists in the US (“We’re all middle-class, right?), should cry “class warfare” in every election. If you don’t believe in class — how could there be class warfare?
What is class warfare anyway? It was a term that predated Karl Marx, probably originating from the French “lutte des classes” first used in 1828. It is used, along with “class struggle” during the tumultuous years of the early to mid-19th century when the worse abuses of capitalism were being revealed to the world in Parliamentary investigations and of course in the novels of Dickens and others. By the time Marx, Engels, and Max Weber used it, it was well established in the European languages.
What it refers to is the division of people into groups, often called classes, that have economic and cultural interests in common. The most traditional division is between people who work for a weekly or monthly wage and those who get their income from investments and capital. The warfare (more aptly “struggle”) between these two groups rarely involves any violence, since the most common form of contention takes place in everyday and unobtrusive ways. So when a business owner cuts back on wages or employees, or when a public university or big retailer hires a union-busting law firm to prevent unionization, or when a group of workers legally go on strike — these are all aspects of class struggle.
And when Republicans in Congress desire to cut programs that benefit workers, or when they reduce the capital-gains tax (which is already so low that Warren Buffet favors raising it) or seek to eliminate the inheritance tax — they are engaging in class warfare as well. When Democrats want to raise the minimum wage, tax millionaires, and keep Social Security — they are also engaging in class struggle.
There’s a reason it is a struggle — each side wants to maximize the benefits it gets and knows the only way this can be done is reduce what the other class gets. The economy is a zero-sum game not a backyard barbecue. It doesn’t take a degree in economics to understand that the rich can get richer by cutting back on the wages and benefits they provide to workers. And when Democrats try to protect the income of workers, they have to do so by recouping some of the outrageous profits of the wealthiest individuals and corporations.
When the Republican’s cry “class warfare,” they imply that the struggle only goes one way. They see the rich as “job creators” and think that if they are making lots of money, everyone is making lots of money. But the history of the last few decades has shown us that as the rich get richer and as the gap between rich and poor increases, there has been no improvement of the economy.
It’s time to cry “Uncle Sam” instead of “class warfare.” We need to get this country running again, and we need to do it together. In fact, millionaires shouldn’t pay what others do — they should pay more. And they used to do just that. Under Reagan the highest tax rate was 50 per cent, as opposed to today’s 35 per cent. And under another Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, the top tax rate was 90 per cent.
Let’s recognize that class struggle isn’t something that Democrats do to ruin a perfectly good get-together. That struggle is a reality caused by the fact that the wealthiest citizens and the workers of this country are linked by common national interests but also by conflicting economic needs. If you call that complex interaction “class warfare” then don’t forget that using that term is itself a bomb dropped on the battlefield.