Oh, What A Lovely Class War!
By Michael Winship
My goodness, how they howl when the proverbial shoe is on the proverbial other foot. You'd think the Red Army had just left Moscow and was preparing a frontal assault on the Federal Reserve.
So what are conservatives, Wall Street and financial television commentators shouting? Socialists! That's right. Spread the word: Socialists are swarming over our nation's capitol, and making off with the means of production, otherwise known as campaign contributions and the Federal budget. You got trouble, my friends.
The hysteria started during the campaign, retreated a bit but was back full throttle by the day after the inauguration. President Obama's left hand was barely off Abraham Lincoln's Bible as South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint told the January 21st edition of The Wall Street Journal, "What I'm looking to do as a conservative leader in the Senate is to identify those Republicans, and even some Democrats, and put together a consensus of people who can help stop this slide toward socialism."
Newt Gingrich, resurrected yet again, proclaims his Contract on America has been cancelled and replaced by Barack Obama's "European socialism." Josh Bolin, founder of the conservative website Reagan.org is quoted in The New York Times, saying, "Socialism is something new for us to hit Obama over the head with," and a panel at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference was titled, "Bailing Out Big Business: Are We All Socialists Now?"
And what do all these pesky socialists coming out from the woodwork want? Why, class war, of course. Arise, ye workers from your slumbers, at least in time to watch early morning TV. On the Today show last week, CNBC's Jim Cramer alleged that President Obama was perpetrating 'an agenda in this country now that I would regard as being a radical agenda," adding, "This is the most, greatest wealth destruction I've seen by a president."
Joan Walsh of Salon.com noted several hundred references to Obama and "class warfare" when she searched the words on Google News at the beginning of March and wondered "why are mainstream reporters pushing this storyline?"
The truth is, there's nothing new about any of this. A famous New Deal-era cartoon in The New Yorker shows Manhattan swells in black tie urging neighbors to, "Come along. We're going to the Trans-Lux to hiss Roosevelt." And as financial historian Charles Geisst told the Times, "To hear [FDR] referred to as Comrade Roosevelt during that period was not unusual."
But although Obama embraces FDR analogies, in some respects he's a piker by comparison. The Columbia Journalism Review linked to a chart from the National Taxpayers Union and noted, "The top marginal rate of 39.6 percent that Obama is proposing is actually low by historical standards-he may be adopting FDR-style rhetoric, but his tax plan isn't in the same ballpark. And it wasn't only Roosevelt. Throughout the Eisenhower administration, top tax rates exceeded 90 percent. Under Nixon, they never dropped below 70 percent. Even for most of Ronald Reagan's term, they were at 50 percent. Those presidents aren't often thought of as 'class warriors.'"
Nor did Democrats or progressives fire the first shots in any so-called class war. As the recently poorer multibillionaire Warren Buffet said a couple of years ago, "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."
America wasn't founded as a nation where winner takes all but over the last couple of decades, that's the way it has turned out. The central vision of "We, the people" has been distorted and manipulated by the powerful and privileged doing their damnedest as they wage class war to sustain their way of life at the expense of everybody else, even in this current crisis.
"Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America," a report released last week by the non-profit citizen's group Essential Information and the Consumer Education Foundation finds that "from 1998-2008, Wall Street investment firms, commercial banks, hedge funds, real estate companies and insurance conglomerates made $1.7 billion in political contributions and spent another $3.4 billion on lobbyists, a financial juggernaut aimed at undercutting federal regulation."
According to Harvey Rosenfield, president of the Consumer Education Foundation, "Depression-era programs that would have prevented the financial meltdown that began last year were dismantled, and the warnings of those who foresaw disaster were drowned in an ocean of political money. Americans were betrayed, and we are paying a high price - trillions of dollars - for that betrayal."
The truth of the matter may be that, as Nate Silver wrote at FiverThirtyEight.com, "The stock market is engaged in something of a pity party - the prevailing emotions being fear and loathing. It is concerned about policies which might be burdensome to equity holders in large corporations while perhaps nevertheless being boons to economic recovery."
Add to that a heavy dose of petulance, arrogance and malice stirred further by any attempt at curtailing their rice pudding days. While the dives in the stock markets are real enough, the screams and rending of bespoke garments carry more than the hint of self-inflicted wounds, in the manner of spoiled kids saying "I meant to do that," when they break a toy, even though this administration is seeking solutions by joining hands with the very financial institutions that got us into the jam in the first place - including private equity firms and hedge funds.
Cries of Socialism! - with their insinuations of sedition and Bolsheviks under the bedstead - ring hollow, especially with the threat of global Communism 20 years past and many in the financial world opting for expediency over ideology. The basic truth is that there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no kiss to the body politic that will make it all better.
Nonetheless, they lash out, flailing madly, saddling up straw horses and conjuring memories of McCarthy-like witch hunts, desperate to point the finger at anyone but themselves.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.