|The hidden issue of class
By Robert Kuttner | July 21, 2004
SOCIAL CLASS is one of the most explosive issues in American politics. Like
any explosive, it can dramatically transform a landscape -- or blow up in
the user's face.
There are far more ordinary wage-earning people than wealthy investors and
corporate moguls, but the political right has done far better at using
class solidarity to its advantage than the liberal left. Americans like to
view their country as a wide-open land of opportunity. Most consider
themselves middle class, and most are uneasy thinking in terms of class at
all. It's the rich who understand and act on class interests.
The Bush presidency has intensified a trend that began under Ronald Reagan
-- widening inequality that benefited those at the very top. This shift has
been carried out not just through tax policy but through cuts in social
outlays and changes in regulations that made it easier for chief executives
and other financial insiders to enrich themselves at the expense of
ordinary workers and small investors and harder for ordinary people to
afford decent schools, houses, and health care. This is surely class
warfare, but it is one-way.
Under Bush, the pay of ordinary workers has lagged behind inflation. About
77 percent of all the dollars in tax cuts went to the richest 20 percent of
households. More workers have lost health insurance and pension coverage.
These policy changes did not just happen; they were worked out in concert
with organized business.
You would think, therefore, that the Democrats would make Republican
responsibility for these skewed benefits and costs the centerpiece of the
2004 campaign. But that enterprise is trickier than it might seem. Since
all but the most destitute of voters consider themselves middle class, a
politics that talks about haves and have-nots starts sounding like a
politics of handouts.
While John Edwards bravely speaks of two Americas, John Kerry constantly
invokes "the middle class." It's not that Kerry opposes programs that
benefit the poor; it's that polls consistently show that if you emphasize
the poor you run smack into the fact that most Americans consider
themselves middle class.
Even though individual voters may resent the fact that jobs are moving to
India or that schools are lacking necessary funds or that health care
benefits are evaporating, this is not a country where most voters resent
the rich as a class. It's a land where nearly everyone would like to be rich.
Paradoxically, Republicans bump up against this reality when they try to
damn John Edwards as a rich trial lawyer. In fact, Edwards was a poor boy
who made good and then used his legal skills to help a lot of ordinary
plaintiffs collect their due. Were he a corporate attorney rather than a
personal injury lawyer, he'd be a Republican rags-to-riches poster boy.
But because nearly everyone identifies upward, you don't gain traction in
American progressive politics by baiting the rich. In a now-famous piece of
research titled "Homer Gets a Tax Cut," the Princeton political scientist
Richard Bartels demonstrated that even the poor supported tax cuts for the
rich because they hoped that they might possibly benefit.
The politics of class in America is further complicated by social issues.
If Kerry's pocketbook program had a clean debate with Bush's, Kerry would
win hands down. But a lot of working-class voters are socially
conservative, and Bush's conservatism on issues of faith, family values,
and flag tends to fuzz up the fact that his program doesn't serve their
pocketbook interests. Bush and Kerry, of course, are both from the economic
elite. But Bush, despite his upper-class program, masquerades as just plain
Of recent Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton understood these dynamics
best. He could articulate a politics of "putting people first" that united
the pocketbook interests of middle-class voters and poor ones. When he said
that people who worked hard and played by the rules shouldn't be poor, he
made economic populism sound socially traditionalist and safely middle class.
No modern president should be more vulnerable than George Bush on the issue
of having failed to stick up for the economic interests of ordinary
Americans. But so far the Democrats have been more mindful of the
volatility of the class issue than its political potential.
The fact that Kerry, at this point in the campaign, is only fighting Bush
to a draw suggests that Democrats still have a lot of work to do to smoke
out the almost un-American issue of class. If they do, Kerry will win going
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears
regularly in the Globe.
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