Class Warfare Revisited with a Perspective on History

 The phrase, “Class Warfare,” is a hot-button political issue, but few understand why.

In the world of applause lines, sound bites, superficial media coverage and staged events that define modern political campaigns, certain words and phrases are used as “code words.” These “code words” are bandied about in an effort to generate an emotion-triggering, shorthand attack on opponents and enable the partisans who hurl them to avoid offering specific ideas and potential solutions to serious problems. Sometimes referred to as “dog whistle” politics, the use of these code words sends out a signal to voters, who upon hearing them, react in Pavlovian fashion, without thinking about the substance of the issue.

In recent times, some of the code words and phrases we’ve heard and responded to include: “state’s rights,” “forced bussing,” “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” “liberal,” “socialist,” “right to life,” “pro-choice,” “right to work,” and “death committee.” What is unique in the current election cycle is that the leaders and candidates of both political parties are throwing around the same code phrase – “class warfare.” When it is possible for both parties to use the same code phrase for their perceived benefit, it demonstrates just how murky the meaning of these code words can be.

The Republicans, with little effort to justify or clarify, respond in knee-jerk fashion to every proposal offered by President Obama and the Democrats as a sign of “class warfare” against the rich. Likewise, the Democrats accuse all Republicans of being nothing more than mercenaries in the army of the moneyed, who are waging “class warfare” against the middle class and the poor. Is it any wonder that our political system is paralyzed and our economic difficulties continue to fester when those charged with solving problems and making the system work are mired in a politically charge cycle of slogans, rather than solutions?

What makes the current situation unique is that both the Republicans and Democrats are correct when they suggest that America is in the midst of “class warfare,” but few politicos – let alone the electorate – understand the saga and perspective of “class warfare” in American history; and, just how much one class actually needs the other for all to be successful. If they did, the solutions to existing problems would become obvious and the leaders could get back to making the system work as it has so well for over 200 years.

Understanding the Conflict

One of the most significant – if unsung – accomplishments of the American Revolution was the creation of a strong middle class endowed with the dream and the opportunity for upward mobility. At the time of the revolution, American society was structured in mirror-like fashion to English society. As it was in England, American society was based on two classes: a small group of elite, educated, enfranchised and propertied men — and all the rest.

Our schools parroted simplistic notions and taught us that the “Founding Fathers” (a code phrase for the elite in America) stood up for “liberty and freedom” for all, but the revolution was much more complex than that. What the Founding Fathers really wanted was the same “liberty and freedom” that the elite in the “mother country” possessed; and as hard as it may be to accept, they cared little for the “liberty and freedom” of others who were viewed as common “rabble,” the great unwashed. Just think about the code phrase of the time, “No taxation without representation.” The only people “represented” in the English parliament were the elite of society. And the elite in America, who viewed themselves as “full” British citizens, wanted the same “right” that had been deigned to them by the English government.

Only after years of futile efforts on the part of the American elite to secure the same rights of citizenship as the privileged living in England enjoyed, did the idea of revolution and separation from “the Crown” take hold. Yet even before this decision to seek independence, there was a similar, intramural-type revolution under way in America.

For at least 30 years prior to the American Revolution, there was an increasingly heated conflict between the wealthy and elite in America and the masses of the “common man” who sought the same rights from the American elite that the elite in America sought from the British. It was a real conundrum for the privileged in America to justify demanding rights from the British since they themselves were unwilling to grant them to all Americans. (The primary motivation for the early westward movement of Americans was to break away from the existing system in order to acquire property and become the “new elite.” Conversely, many of the Founding Fathers initially preferred reconciliation with England, rather than rebellion, to protect the massive western land grants they had received from the British government.)

As the movement for rebellion gained momentum, the Founding Fathers were perceptive enough to understand that the revolution would fail unless they could find a way to convince most of the farmers, artisans and budding entrepreneurs in America to support the rebellion. (This would be a good trick to pull off, because at the time most Americans disliked the wealthy and elite in America, more than they did the British.) The true ingenuity on the part of the Founding Fathers was their promise to all Americans that – if they would support the revolution – then the elite would agree to create an “entirely new social order.” As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, published in early 1776, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.”

We are taught that the Declaration of Independence was a message to the British and it was, but even more importantly, it served as a recruiting effort in the form of written promises – signed by the leaders of the American elite – made to all Americans that outlined the benefits they would gain by supporting the rebellion. The essence of this recruiting promise was the innovative creation of what had never before existed in any society – a middle class.

Once the rebellion was successful, the political debate for the next decade revolved around how the promises made to masses would be quantified. Of course the elite – ever fearful of the masses – sought to retain as much power as possible, while the group that would become the middle-class felt their support of the rebellion entitled them to the same rights as the elite. The result was a compromise between the two groups that took the form of our constitution. The real objective of the constitution was to create a dynamic and balanced society by both granting and limiting the rights and powers of the elite and the masses. And one of the most important tools used to create this balance, although not fully recognized at the time, was upward social and economic mobility.

It has been the interpretation of these (purposefully vague) grants and limits on rights and powers to the common and the elite that has been at the center of all political discourse, since the ratification of the constitution. Whenever either group believes the balance of rights and power is being tilted against them, it serves as the basis for what we call “class warfare.” When the Republicans cry “class warfare” they are seeking to elicit an emotional response from the wealthy and elite that the “masses” are attempting to take away their power and wealth. When the Democrats employ the same code phrase they are attempting to elicit an emotional response from the “masses” that the rich and powerful are attempting to take away their rights to participate and achieve the same wealth and power.

And the Moral of the Story …

American government and society was founded on the basis of “checks and balances.” In reality, parallel interests. The rights and powers of one were balanced with the rights and powers for all. It was the opportunity for the individual to use these rights and powers to achieve social and economic mobility that made America a great nation. The greatness of America will be maintained and enhanced only if the parallel interests of all remain in balance.

The politicians should not be allowed to simply throw out the code phrase “class warfare” without being required to explain how the rights and powers of one group are being tilted away from them unfairly. And even more important, we must demand how they propose to keep American society balanced with rights and powers for all. If we don’t hold our leaders and politicians to this standard, if we allow them to get away with just using “code words,” then America runs the risk of descending into true class warfare and our revolution will have failed.


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