"Class warfare" has a legitimate place in American political/electoral discourse

In this thread, John Mace (starting at post #25) excoriated presidential candidate John Edwards for his “class warfare” rhetoric, based on Edwards’ 2004 primary campaign stump speech:

Now, putting the phrase “class warfare” in its proper perspective: The following is from [by Al Franken, at the end of Chapter 35, “By Far the Vast Majority of My Tax Cuts Go to Those at the Bottom”:

Nevertheless, for purposes of this discussion, let us assume rhetorical (as distinct from violent or revolutionary) “class warfare” is an apt name for the POV Edwards expressed in 2004. If so, America needs much, much more of it, and in far more radical terms than Edwards is willing to touch.

For the following reasons, to begin with:

  1. Different social classes do exist, in a vertical-hierarchical order, even in America. In some respects they have identical interests, and in other respects conflicting interests. That’s plain common sense and you don’t need to be any kind of Marxist to see it. That does not automatically mean the lower classes are any better or any more deserving than the upper. It does automatically mean that siding with the lower classes’ interests in any case of conflict should be the default position of any person of truly good will – just because the lower classes are the only ones who really need extra support to get even a chance at a chance of a fair shake. “The poorest he that is in England has a life to live as much as the greatest he.” – Slogan of the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levellers]Levellers.](]Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,[/url)

  2. In many ways – not in nearly as many ways as some populist or socialist zealots would assume, but still in very many very real ways – the upper classes really are exploiters who accumulate their wealth by taking unfair advantage of the less fortunate. Only fair they should be forced to give some of it back to society. (Of course it’s true that, nowadays, upper-class people are also “workers” in the sense that they work, even if they are independently wealthy and don’t have to – it’s a cultural thing; and it’s also true that they are also, in some respects, creators of wealth and providers of employment. Things are seldom simple, and this is clearly not one that is.)

  3. Above a certain level, wealth means not only purchasing power but political power; and it runs clean against the very idea of democracy to allow the rich to wield political influence out of proportion to their numbers – which they do, especially nowadays. Being raised in the profit-centered ways of thinking of the business world (which cannot comprehend or acknowledge even the concept of “enough”), most of them (not all, but most) will only use that power to take ever unfairer advantage of everybody else and to build up their political power ever more and more in an endless and socially destructive cycle – which they do, especially nowadays.

  4. Even if a democratic and egalitarian society, which this is supposed to be, does not strictly require equality of outcome, it does at the very least require equality of opportunity. Everybody should be born with roughly equal chances to make it in life. At present, we’re not, to put it mildly, and only a fool or a liar would say otherwise. Measure our present social order against anything you might come up with to meet the test of the veil of ignorance.

None of this means it is imperative to destroy the American overclass as a class; nor even to knock them out of their place at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. Within limits, a case could be made for the positive social value of an elite class. What we do need, however, is a much flatter pyramid, with the top and the bottom a lot closer together than they are now. As George Orwell put it in 1941 in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (Part III, Section II):

That’s far more radical than anything any current presidential candidate – even Dennis Kucinich, let alone John Edwards is willing to suggest. But if some of them were, that sort of “class warfare” would have a perfectly legitimate place in American political and electoral discourse. Where’s the harm in at least talking in these terms?!

Your post is a very large, steaming pile, so perhaps to focus the discussion we can concentrate on one or two of the bigger lumps.

John Edwards is an idiot, of course, since ten seconds reflection will clarify that it is quite difficult to give a tax break to an “America” that doesn’t pay taxes. The ones who get the tax breaks, by definition, have to be the ones who are paying the taxes. Since most of the federal income tax comes from the top 10% of filers, Edwards’ call for “class warfare” is apparently based on his hope that his foot soldiers are morons.

A gentleman of my acquaintance is a multi-millionaire. He accumulated his fortune from founding a successful small business (he was a veterinarian). He inherited nothing from his father (80% of millionaires are first-generation rich in the US) , who was a furniture salesman, his wife put him thru school, and his business when he sold it employed about twenty-five people, none at minimum wage or close to it.

Could you briefly describe the ways in which his wealth is based on the exploitation of the working classes?


PS - Al Franken is an asshole to suggest that anything short of forced cannibalism and murder is OK. We don’t lynch blacks anymore - does that mean Jim Crow isn’t racism?

I did a ctrl-F on that page and looked for the words “capital gains.” I didn’t get any hits.

Funny, that.

The fact that you even have to ask if class warfare has a legitimate place in US political/electoral discourse indicates just how far the conservatives have moved the goalposts on this one.

Fact of the matter is, over the course of the last two decades (since 1979) the gap between the wealthiest and the lowest income families grew from 11 times to 19 times.
Source: http://multinationalmonitor.org/mm2003/03may/may03interviewsbernstein.html

While wages have been increasing … s l o w l y … for the middle class, the cost of important items has increased faster.

Source: http://www.commondreams.org/views06/0401-20.htm

Yah, play with those ipods my pretties, we’ll make wage slaves of you all!

The wealth elite’s income grows while middle class incomes stagnate amid rising costs:

Source: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2007/jun2007/wage-j16.shtml

You would have to be a TOTAL DUMBASS not to look at class warfare at this point. It has obviously been going on for two decades, at least.

Jeebus, am I the only one paying attention any more?

Thread has already become a heaping pile. The core point that should be obvious is that wealth is not a zero sum game and it is created all the time. The fact that someone has $50 billion like Bill Gates adds an immeasurable amount to the U.S. economy as the U.S. stayed on top of the PC revolution. Successful entrepreneurs tend to add to societal good just be doing what they do, not take anything away. If you start taking away what they earn for themselves, either the money will find its way elsewhere or the incentive to produce innovation will be lost altogether.

I have no idea what Edwards is talking about when he says that “One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward.” I have no idea what to make of that. I know some very rich people and they go to the office every day just like I do. If they aren’t working, then I must not either. Who in the hell is doing all the work in this country? I guess it would have to be the bulldozer operators and the nice guys down at the Quickie-Lube. That sounds fine. It really is just about physical labor that you can measure through kilo-calories expended and such. However, that leaves us in the odd position that Senators do almost know work. Edwards is a multi-millionaire many times over and he does no work by that standard. Shouldn’t reform start at home?

That’s why all the qualifiers, which you cannot have missed.

Nevertheless, his point remains true. Arguing over how much tax the rich should pay is not class warfare.

But, whether it is or it isn’t, we need a whole lot more of it.

Class warfare has no place in American political discourse. Anybody who says different is no doubt part of the decadent, morally bankrupt, latte-slipping, Chablis-drinking, terrorist-loving, America-hating, God-despising, Blue state-living, limousine liberal elite.

Notice how the conservatives so desperately don’t want to admit the class warfare that’s going on? So long as they can convince they other guy that there’s no fight going on, they can keep hitting him, and they won’t get hit back. This is likely to change soon, however:

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/16/us/politics/16populist.html?_r=1&th&emc=th&oref=slogin

Yes, indeedy, the US economy has grown but you know what? The absolute numbers are irrelevant when you are measuring in percentages, as was the case in my cites. The pie has grown, so what? The relative share that the wealthy has of the economic pie has grown enormously, the relative share that the middle class can claim remains stagnant.

The greed of the wealthy is inexhaustible. It’s the nature of biz and capitalism. The only way to prevent the US from becoming just another Third World kleptocracy is to fight it.

Let me help you. Some people have jobs and get most of their wealth from wages. Other people invest in companies and such and get most of their wealth from dividends and such. The wealth of people who’ve been making their moneys from dividends and such has been growing much faster than the people who make their money from wages.

Glad I could help.

I’m not sure how you’re defining “classes.” I have friends that are plumbers, lawyers, teachers, Doctors, and Policemen and we play tenis and party together. We have widely disparate incomes and lifestyles. Are we in different classes, or the same class?

I also have to disagree with the automatically siding with the poor issue. I think you side with the person who appears to be right based on a “justice is blind” sort of principle. Typically though, I would tend to automatically side with the wealthy, though not for the reasons you suspect. Sometimes people are poor because they are lazy or stupid or apathetic or bad people. Sometimes people are well off because they work hard and are careful.

For example, my neighbor owns many apartments. Lots of times he has to evict people from these apartments. Recently he evicted a single mother. This single mother was 8 months behind in the rent. When she left there was over $5,000 dollars worth of damage done to the apartment. It was full of empty bottles of booze and cigarette butts. There was plenty of money for booze and cigarettes apparently, but none for rent. He let her go so long because of the child. When she left, she didn’t bother to take the child’s toys with her. She left behind all the kids’ toys and stuffed animals.

This neighbor of mine is wealthy but he’s self-made. He grew up in Perry County (read Appalachia for all intents and purposes,) got a GED in his 30s and went to night school to get a college degree and is now the director of sales for a local corporation.

He went to considerable personal expense and effort to track down the single mother’s parents in an attempt to locate the child and return the toys at his own cost.

I know who I’m siding with.

It’s tempting to always want to side with the underdog, I sympathize. I don’t think it’s right. Justice has to be blind.

Well yes, this is a complex issue. Here, I largely agree with you. You’ve presented the issue fairly and even-handedly. In many ways what you are talking about does happen though. I’d read recently (no cite) that the top 1% earners carry nearly 30% of the tax burden. Obviously, there is a proper balance to be found here so that those who benefit the most from the system must provide to it accordingly.

I think I disagree with your premise here. While it’s truth that wealth breeds power, I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing that needs correcting. Where it breeds disproportionate power though does need correcting.

I disagree. Equality should not mean we are all born with an equal chance, it means we are all born under an equal system. I labor so that my children have a better chance than somebody else’s. It is my perogative to try to give them every advantage. I will not give the fruits of my labors to somebody else’s children. What you seem to be talking about is “fairness” not equality. Life is not fair. No matter what you try to legislate you cannot equalize the opportunity between me and say, a retarded quadriplegic. It’s not fair, but there it is.

All equality means is that we all have a chance and all operate under the same system. It does not mean that the playing field is level. It can’t be. When you attempt to level it you mess with forces beyond your understanding. For some, the forge of hardship creates an iron and for others the fruits of privilege spoil them. We are all different and we thrive, or not, under different environments. We can’t be all equal unless we are all the same.

You say that we need this, but you haven’t really made an argument as to why. Why is our overclass to big? Why does the pyramid need to be flatter? What is the optimum differential here?

I really don’t know. Do you?

I do know that one of the key benefits to a capitalistic system, the one that makes up for all its shortcomings is that it is self-evolving and ultimately self-correcting. This is not to say that large innefficiencies cannot perpetuate for a terribly long time, simply that they have a tendency to correct themselves.

A very interesting question might be what you propose the optimum shape of the wealth bell curve is in a free society and where are we in relation to it. Do you want to try and tackle that with me?

Good post. And, I agree with your premise. I think you have proven that this is a valid topic of discourse within political debate generally. More specifically, I think that you have demonstrated that Edwards is pertinent on this topic.

I think this is called poisoning the well, BrainGlutton. If I disagree that the default position should be to side with the underclass then I’m not a man of “truly good will” which puts a damper on any discourse we might have, you know what I mean? My default position should be to keep an open mind, gather as much information as I can, and then decide which side I should be on.


I really don’t know how you can say that in response to a discussion of Bill Gates who, in point of fact, is turning out to arguably be the greatest philanthropist of all times, working with one of the other wealthiest men in the world, Warren Buffet, both are diligently struggling to give the vast bulk of their accumulated wealth away. I say “struggling” because spending it is easy. Making it do good is hard, and these men insist that do good, and do it efficiently. The world is a better place because of both of these men, and their continuing efforts are making it better still.

Are you claiming Gates and Buffet are representative of the wealthy class in America? Why not Ken Lay and Dennis Kozlowski?

Well, Bill Gates was the example given, that Evil Captor responded to so negatively, not Ken Lay.

And, yes. Gates and Buffet are representative of the truly wealthy. Lay and Kozlowski are pikers comparatively. Not even in the same league, if we’re talking about wealth.

I don’t why the two most wealthy individuals are necessarily representative of the morals of all the wealthy. There are many thousands with the wealth of the Lays and Kozlowskis, so Gates and Buffet represent only a small portion of the wealth controlled by the top 10% of the richest Americans. Of that group, what percent emulate Gates and Buffet, and what percent are represented by the morals of Lay and Kozlowski?

I also don’t much cotton to the term “class warfare” being bandied about, save in ironic references to the running dog jackals of the ruling class… Its too Marxist, too old fashioned, it still has elements of truth to it, but it is worn out and raggedy.

The definition of rich is pretty much having more money than you need. So how can it harm someone to trim away what they don’t need? But “warfare”? Too dramatic, too bombastic, for an experience which will be more akin to being nibbled to death by ducks.

“Its not a crime to be poor in America, but it may as well be.” - Will Rogers

You said, and I quote -

Please describe the “very many very real ways” in which the person I have described was an exploiter who accumulated his wealth by taking unfair advantage of the less fortunate.

Well, no, it’s not true at all; it’s a strawman.

Well, if you would like to call taking the side of the lower classes by default, even if they don’t deserve it, using the power of government to limit people’s success, appeals to envy, and the rest of the standard Marxist boilerplate, something other than class warfare, go ahead.

You want more of it, because (for instance) the person I mentioned has a lot more than the people at the bottom do. And you justify this because you assert that those at the top got there dishonestly. Please demonstrate that this is the case.

You find it funny that a cite about one thing doesn’t mention something else? You must be convulsed with laughter most of the time you are on the SDMB.

Not to put a damper on your merriment, but -

This is the sort of appeal to envy I mentioned. Even if the “pie has grown”, the middle class should be upset because someone else is doing better.

This is merely economics as a game of beggar-your-neighbor. There was actually a study of why people might want to reject something that is to their own benefit because someone else benefits more. It doesn’t make rational sense, as game theory points out, but the study indicated that cutting off your nose to spite your face is linked to testosterone poisoning. :smiley:


That certainly settles that!

They don’t deserve advocacy? What have they done to be so undeserving? And yes, “taking the side of lower classes by default” seems rather a good idea, frankly, seeing as how the upper classes can afford advocacy by professionals. And pundits. And a certain political party, whcih shall remain gormless…

Alternatively, you could demonstrate otherwise.

Now, about your cites. The first is published in 1998, some two years before the Blunder of 2000. A bit long in the tooth, don’t you think?

And in the second, in response to (paraphrase) “Bill Gates/Buffet are a couple of pretty good joes, but so what?” you respond with proof: “No, Bill Gates/Buffet are a couple of pretty good joes, and this guy who makes his living servicing the rich agrees!” Uh, OK. And?

I get a chill sometimes when I read through threads like this. To me, this seemingly simply statement is like a goose walking over my grave:

Need…who defines need. What exactly is ‘more money than you need’? This seems like a statement vague enough that the goal posts can be ever changing. Let me see…to paraphrase: ‘Those rich guys, they have enough money to last a lifetime! Surely they can give some of it to the poor?’ <time goes by> ‘Those rich guys have enough money to last them for decades! Greedy bastards afford to have some of it taken so that people don’t starve!’ <bit more time> ‘The rich have sufficient funds to last for over a year! Surely they can spare a bit’ <time marches on> ‘The rich in this country have sufficient funds to last well over a month. Time to make them pay their fair share!’ <and finally> ‘The rich in this country are defined by having more money than they need…and the poor NEED it much more!’

<shudder> Its interesting how often life can imitate literature sometimes…

Why would siding with the lower classes AUTOMATICALLY mean…well, anything? Surely you aren’t so wrapped up in your rhetoric that you fail to see that there are no absolutes. Personally, I think taking things on a case by case basis is more beneficial than a knee jerk acceptance of ANYONES position.

And frankly, anything by the Levellers give me a serious case of the chills.

Well, this is just rhetorical bullshit to be honest. The rich DO give plenty back to society…since they are taxed highest and since the taxes of this small group comprise such a high percentage of the total tax revenue of the country. And this leaves aside the fact that its THEIR capital that makes the industry in this country go. The workers and peasants aren’t the ones providing that capital (or taking the risks) that allows for innovations.

I’m not going to bother going into all this (again) though…I’ve seen you in threads like this (as I’ve seen the other responders to THIS thread so far), and no one is going to be convinced. If you haven’t been convinced that there is a balance between your extremist rhetoric about class warfare and the evil rich stealing everything in sight and the other extreme (say, robber baron capitalism of the mid-late 19th century) by now with all the threads you’ve started on this subject…then you never will. I’m unsure why you would want to debate this AGAIN when its doubtful that either you or those sympathetic with you are going to be convinced…nor will I be convinced by this quasi-communistic claptrap that you are spouting.

Why especially now-a-days? IIRC, rich patriarchs were who FOUNDED this country. And they sort of had a disproportional representation in the founding. Check out the DoI sometime and look at who signed…not many poor on that page.

I’m unsure how you would EVER get a system where everyone was equally represented in government, or where the rich and powerful DIDN’T have disproportionate representation. Throughout human history its been the case…the rich or the powerful wield proportionally more power than the poor or the powerless (or those not in the party, say). At least in our system people OTHER than the rich have a chance to at least influence the system.

Well, no surprise, you have a different idea as to what a democratic society is and should be…as well as a different interpretation about what ‘all mean created equal’ MEANS. I think Scylla’s response to this was best:



Relevant article.

I’m not sure I ever said “class warfare” doesn’t have a legitimate place in political discourse, but if I did I was wrong. I just don’t want any part of it, myself. And if you don’t like the term “warfare”, we can just call it “class politics”. Changing the name doesn’t change the substance. Edwards’ plays the Two Americas theme, and if that’s what he believes in, then he should go for it. Frankly, it sounds like load of crap to me, and I think we’ve already deconstructed some of the logical inconsistencies in that stump speech.

Furthermore, we are not and never have been an “egalitarian society”, and I reject that as a premise. We’re a society where each person is supposed to be equal before the law, but free to excel or not in the private sector. Over the years, we have developed certain policies to provide an economic safety net for those in need. I’m not averse to that as long as we build in strong incentives to not stay in that net longer than needed. We can argue all day about what “longer than needed” means, operationally, but however we define it as a society, then we should fund it as a society. That means not splitting the country into one group fighting against another for goodies from the government.