Recently, Warren Buffet commented that, America was engaged in “class warfare”. Conservative reaction was immediate, anticipated and with expected indignation. When Obama followed up this week with his “Warren Buffet Tax”, again Conservatives were aghast. Words like “class warfare” are not commonly used anymore – they were anachronisms from the days of “Commies and Socialists”. Never the less, they are appropriate, still true as Buffet suggested, and Americans should not be horrified by them.
The fact is “class warfare” (more often the euphemism “class conflict” is used) has been an essential part of American history for over a century. As the industrial revolution gained traction, and we became less of an agrarian society, wealth and capital began to be accumulated and concentrated on a severely uneven and distorted basis. Between 1870 and 1900 the share of national wealth held by the richest one percent of households peaked at around 45 percent. The results were violent strikes, the rise of unions, and the beginnings of the Socialist movement in the United States – in short: “class warfare”.
In the early 1900’s, Republican Teddy Roosevelt arrived on the political scene to fight the excesses of the infamous “Robber Barons” whose greed had again distorted economic fairness in America: “class warfare”. He clashed with the super wealthy, like J.P. Morgan, and ordered the Justice Department to take antitrust action against the monopolists. In the great anthracite coal strike of 1902, he recognized organized labor as a legitimate voice in the industrial affairs of the country. He introduced railroad regulation, and food and drug safety. He pushed for the adoption of an income tax, and a federal estate tax on the inheritances of wealthy families. He set precedents in federal regulation of manufacturing and commerce. He launched the federal government on an ambitious program of environmental protection and conservation. He was truly engaging in “class warefare”.
Later, his namesake, FDR would engage in similar “class warfare” with the New Deal. His election in 1932 and his subsequent Presidential terms marked a historic political realignment creating a new Democratic majority of liberals, workers, immigrants, African Americans and women (dubbed infamously by Republican political strategists as “special interests”); and laid the foundations of a limited American version of the welfare state. During WWII, he raised the top tax rate to 92%. He was engaged in a version of “class warfare”.
In short, what we really have here is a semantic argument, not one of some kind of new or violent political action. Conservatives know “warfare” is a hot word, and might resonate with the public; but call it any name you wish, and the reality of it is the same (as defined by Wikipedia): “the tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socioeconomic interests between people of different classes.” And it has been part of our culture (indeed of virtually all societies) forever. While violence may also be part of this class tension in most societies (as it has been…and will continue to be), in America we have generally found a better way to conduct this “war”. The ballot box.
Buffet went on to remind us that “my class is winning”. Indeed they are. No need to reconstruct all the statistics, most of which have been well publicized. But quickly, the top 1% of Americans take home 24% of all income; and control 42% of all financial wealth (the bottom 80% hold only 7% of the financial wealth of our nation). This is true “class warfare”, and Buffet calls it right when he notes “his class is winning”.
Obviously, this condition (and unfortunately an ongoing trend) creates precisely the kind “tension and antagonism” that defines “class warfare”. Those who deny it are disengenuous; those who decry it are dishonest.
As to how to redress this, while the ballot box is the preferred and effective American way, it is not being employed by those who would benefit by electing a more fair-minded congress, or a legendary hero in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt. In fact in the 2010 election which turned our country even further to the right, only 41% of Americans bothered to vote. And that is concerning, because other options are far less desirable.
While conservatives can bask in their recent election victory…and the super wealthy continue to pile on unimaginable riches…and the lobbyists for special interests continue their undue influence over a compliant congress – warning flags should be raised.“
Class warfare”, of whatever kind, will not ultimately be good for the country, nor the wealthy, or for that matter Capitalism itself. History has shown that whenever wealth becomes excessively concentrated, subsequent tensions and stress are created. And that damages our nation and our democracy. Call it what you will, but “class warfare” – by this or any other name – is a condition that Americans of all political stripes must work to mitigate…and soon.