Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Class Warfare"

A time-honored substitute for debating the substance of an issue is sloganeering name-calling. The slogan of choice being thrown around right now seems to be “class warfare.” What exactly “class warfare” is remains somewhat undefined. In the current demagogic use of the term, it seems to refer to anyone who believes (1) that the government needs additional revenues to deal with the deficit created over the last decade by the previous (Republican) administration, and (2) that one obvious source of such revenue would be repealing the tax cuts for the wealthiest group of Americans, the very same tax cuts that helped cause the current deficit in the first place. In addition, (3) those who advocate this course of action are more likely (than those who don’t advocate it) to believe that our increasing social and economic inequality and its accompanying hardships on an increasingly larger percentage of the population are socially and politically destructive. In 1996, David Plotke (Building a Democratic Political Order) called that latter idea the “common sense” of American politics from the mid-30s through the mid-60’s (I’d say actually even further into the 70s).
Americans have always been squeamish about the concept of “class.” Unlike race and ethnicity, for example, which we have always been very conscious of, “class” has often had a foreign, essentially European sound to it. There is a good reason for this, of course, since, unlike Europe, the United States, for most of its history, has been much more culturally and politically egalitarian, both mirroring and supporting the reality of a relatively (again compared with the societies most Americans had immigrated from) high degree of social and economic mobility. Thus, we have the often remarked peculiarity that many Americans simultaneously denied the reality of class in America and were also likely to label themselves as “middle class.” When I was a political scientist, it was also argued that many of racial and ethnic divisions in our society were really (or at least also) class divisions, and that class conflict was, so to speak, hidden in our history of racial and ethnic conflict.
One result of all this has been the difficulty historically of creating a political ideology or organizing political activity around the concept of class. Hence, the chronic failure of the “Left,” understood in a European sense. To be sure, for much of the 20th century the US had a vigorous liberal-democratic “Left,” a coalition of which organized Labor was a key component. But a truly European-style social-democratic "Left" has always been much more marginal, and overtly Marxist and radical movements even more so. The 1960s renaissance of European-style leftist thought and radical movements, moreover, was largely found among students and intellectual types – more often than not separate from and even hostile to the traditional social and economic concerns of organized labor and its liberal-democratic political allies. One obvious consequence of this has been the intellectual Left’s increased preoccupation with cultural and moral concerns (abortion, gender issues, etc.). Such concerns were, of course, quite alien to the traditional liberal-democratic concerns associated, for example, with the Labor Movement, and have tended over time to crowd out such traditional social and economic concerns. The result has been an enfeebled liberal-democratic "Left," ill-equipped to respond coherently to the threat of increasing economic inequality. Meanwhile, the historic advocate for the “common sense” concern about social and economic inequality – the Democratic Party – has increasingly been seen as more responsive to its elites’ primary preoccupation with cultural and moral issues than to labor's traditional social and economic concerns.
FDR’s New Deal policies were admittedly less successful than it had been hoped they would be. (On the eve of the pre-WW II mobilization, unemployment - while down from what it had been when FDR took office in 1933 -was still 14%). But FDR’s New Deal policies did really help people. Perhaps even more to the point, they actually aided the victims of the Depression. President Obama’s policies, have also helped to some extent and certainly prevented the economic crisis from being even worse. But the aid went most noticeably not to the victims of the crisis (e.g., the unemployed, those being foreclosed out of their homes, etc.) but to the economic elite who, many believe, caused the problem in the first place (e.g., “bail-outs” to banks, Wall Street, etc.).
It’s not just that the President and his economic “team” are wealthy, well educated people, who frankly don’t identify all that easilywith the day-to-day difficulties of those less affluent and less educated. There is indeed something to that argument, which would as easily apply to a very large part of the political class. It points to a fundamental dilemma for a democratic society of the prominent part played by money – and the values associated with the culture of money – in our politics .
But FDR was very wealthy and a true American aristocrat. But somehow he was able to connect with his working class constituency in a way our present President unfortunately has not
I suspect that the difference is part that President Obama (for all his evident good intentions and despite his admirable moral character) really is a “postmodern” President – the first, but probably not our last. Apart from adhering (fairly faithfully if not with complete consistency) to the cultural and moral preoccupations of the secularized intellectual elite with which he obviously identifies, he seems to lack clear ("ideological") convictions about some of the fundamentals of traditional political philosophy. Like so many of his contemporaries, he knows what cultural and moral beliefs are mandated by political correctness, and which are supposed to be considered and treated as self-evident truths. Beyond that, however, he seems pragmatically post-ideological, post-principle as a matter of principle. This to me may explain some of his awkwardness when it comes to articulating a convincingly principled alternative vision to his opponents’ ideological principles.

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