The class war began in 1971. That year, soon-to-be Supreme Court justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote a confidential memorandum to a friend at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the “Attack of the American Free Enterprise System.” In the mid-20th century — from the New Deal to Social Security to environmental and civil rights laws — the government had cut into corporate profits while creating middle-class prosperity. Falsely believing that capitalism was under attack, Powell wrote: “It must be recognized that businessmen have not been trained or equipped to conduct guerrilla warfare with those who propagandize against the system.” His proposal, from which the modern conservative movement grew, was to equip business elites for that battle with aggressive policies to make Americans believe that what’s good for wealthy chief executives is good for them, too.
Between 1979 and 2007, the income gap between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the poorest 40 percent more than tripled. Today, the richest 10 percent of Americans control two-thirds of the nation’s wealth, while, according to recently released census data, average Americans saw their real incomes decline by 2.3 percent in 2010. Though our economy grew in 2009 and 2010, 88 percent of the increase in real national income went to corporate profits, one study found. Only 1 percent went to wages and salaries for working people.
Last year, American companies posted their biggest profits ever, and bonuses for bank and hedge fund executives not only reached record highs, but grew faster than corporate revenue. Meanwhile, almost one in 10 Americans is unemployed, and 15 percent live at or below the poverty level.
As a progressive activist who has marched against many wars, I try to avoid militant rhetoric. But only “class warfare” accurately describes a situation in which 400 people control more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans combined. If “class warfare” isn’t the richest of the rich fighting tooth and nail against unions and any tax increases while record numbers of people lose their homes, what is?
While the revolutionary spirit is brimming around the globe, progressive activists have been stymied by the seeming complacency of Americans in the face of this obvious inequality. Effective protest doesn’t mean more of the usual suspects making more of the usual noise, as with the mostly young, white anarchists who targeted Wall Street this past week. It means unexpected people doing unexpected things to disrupt the status quo and mobilize public will for change. If we’re at war, it’s time to escalate.
In a peaceful disagreement, you might write letters to bank executives or march in front of the Capitol. But what about in a war? Imagine millions of Americans withholding mortgage payments to banks that refuse to adjust underwater loans. Imagine divestment campaigns to pressure public pension funds and universities to pull their money from the private sector and put it into government bonds. Imagine students staging sit-ins to protest teacher layoffs. Imagine families who have lost their homes squatting in vacant, bank-owned properties. Imagine a nationwide call to arms, as passionately nonviolent but as violently passionate as the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world. After all, according to the CIA, income inequality in the United States is greater than in Yemen.
And imagine if this war between the rich and the rest of us defined the battle for the presidency in 2012. Some people might not be willing to stop paying the mortgage, but they could vote their conscience. The notion that Democrats have abandoned the working class fueled anti-union, pro-tea-party sentiment in the 2010 elections. Yet Republicans have made clear that they would rather cut Social Security and Medicare benefits than raise taxes on the rich or increase spending to help our economy. Initially, Obama conceded to the right and cut taxes. Now, he says he wants to raise them. The president must show us not only that he’s willing to fight, but that he’s willing to fight for middle-class Americans. This may be his last chance to show voters what he’s made of.
Acknowledging and waging class warfare might not please the president’s biggest donors. After all, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase helped bankrollObama’s 2008 campaign. But standing for the middle class will never backfire with voters. Three out of four Americans support raising taxes on the richest of the rich. Even a majority of Republican voters favor such tax increases. With a once-popular president running for a second term, the Democratic Party must do the right thing. If it can’t now, when will it be able to?
At the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York this past week, former president Bill Clinton said: “Whether you can win or not in a fight that’s worth fighting, get caught trying.” Instead of denying that there’s a class war in America, Obama must come out swinging for the good guys. History — and voters — will catch him in the act and reward him. And millions of Americans could be inspired to try, in their own way, to topple our economy’s brutal inequality.
The good news is that Obama may be coming around. Later in the week, he got more aggressive. “If asking a billionaire to pay the same rate as a plumber or a teacher makes me a warrior for the middle class, I wear that charge as a badge of honor,” he said.
Yes, it’s class warfare. Which side are you on?
Sally Kohn is a political commentator and grass-roots strategist.
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