Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) tells NRO that Occupy Wall Street reminds him of a “Paris mob,” and he blames President Obama for stirring American unrest. ”I think it stems from the president promoting this idea of class warfare and emotions of envy,” he says. “I don’t think it’s helpful to the country to say rich people are not paying their fair share, particularly when it’s untrue — we have a progressive income tax in our country. The middle class, the upper middle class, and the rich pay all of the income tax.”
You know, whenever I hear an American politician, especially a Republican one, denounce “class warfare,” I roll my eyes. What Rand Paul is doing here is implying that any questioning of the way our system distributes rewards is an expression of crypto-Marxism. Is this kind of thing really of no interest to Sen. Paul?
I’m certainly not saying that Republicans, or anyone, should embrace collectivism, but I simply don’t see how, with so many middle-class and working-class people struggling to keep their heads above water, the fact that the wealthiest one percent is doing stratospherically better than most of their countrymen is hard to justify morally, and in the long run, a danger to the stability of our democracy. The thing that’s so appalling about Sen. Paul’s remarks — and they are by no means uncommon on the Right — is that they rule any discussion of this phenomenon out of bounds. This, even though there are strong conservative reasons for working towards building a broad, strong middle-class, and keeping America from turning into a Latin American-style society, in which the super-rich live in gated communities, where they don’t have to see the masses struggling to get by.
Besides which, conservatives engage in class warfare all the time. It’s not based on money, but on social class. It’s called culture war, and conservatives give as good as they get from liberals on the battlefield. Remember when Mitt Romney — the wealth-having, Harvard-graduating, Massachusetts-governing Republican — spoke to the 2008 GOP convention and attacked “Eastern elites”? Sarah Palin could barely open her mouth without trashing coastal cosmopolitans who disdained good old wholesome Red State Americans. This is the way Republicans have rolled since Goldwater. Though liberals refuse to concede it, this line of attack doesn’t come from nowhere. What is invisible to so many on the left is as plain as day to conservatives: the liberal cultural overclass in this country looks down on their values. Candidate Obama’s gaffe in which he condescended to explain conservatives to liberal donors as “bitter” people who cling to God and guns is a perfect expression of this kind of thing. And trust me, as someone who subscribes to The New York Times and reads it daily, the cultural derision, and at times contempt, for conservatives is almost cartoonish.
But as I said, the Right returns fire all the time. Ever watch the Fox News Channel? Listen to talk radio? Class warfare in its cultural form is common in American politics. Here’s an insightful piece from Tom Edsall, writing eight years back in The Atlantic:
It is an axiom of American politics that people vote their pocketbooks, and for seventy years the key political divisions in the United States were indeed economic. The Democratic and Republican Parties were aligned, as a general rule, with different economic interests. Electoral fortunes rose and fell with economic cycles. But over the past several elections a new political configuration has begun to emerge—one that has transformed the composition of the parties and is beginning to alter their relative chances for ballot-box success. What is the force behind this transformation? In a word, sex.
Whereas elections once pitted the party of the working class against the party of Wall Street, they now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice.
The term “class warfare” as Rand Paul uses it is antique. The real class war in American politics is the culture war. If the economy crashes again, or continues to stagger along, that may change, and we’ll revert back to economics being the class divide, and setting the battlefield terms. But we’re not there yet.
Besides which, every time I hear the term “class warfare” coming out of the mouth of a Republican, I know he’s using it in the same way people trying to cover up wrongdoing by members of their race, religion, or social group are by yelling, “Bigotry!” in its various forms (e.g., “Racist! Sexist! Anti-gay! Anti-Catholic! Islamophobe!”) at anyone who points it out that there’s something really disordered about their behavior. “Class warfare!” is what plutocrats and their defenders yell whenever anyone turns a critical spotlight onto the behavior of the ultra-rich, and find it wanting.