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Real Class War Is Working to Keep Those Below You Down

Contrary to popular belief, the United States is not a meritocracy, and amid cries of class warfare, Americans are getting the worst of both worlds.

That conservatives are greeting the deficit reduction package Barack Obama presented on Monday – one that includes a new minimum tax on millionaires – with howls of 'class warfare' is as predictable as the sun rising in the east. It's a poll-tested talking point, after all.

But it obscures a far more pernicious form of “class warfare” being waged from above – a war of attrition against the upward economic mobility of ordinary working people. We live in a country where most people believe their opportunities are limited only by their innate talents and appetite for hard work, but over the last four decades, while decrying a wholly imaginary class war from below, conservative policies have undermined many of the ladders by which working people once achieved a middle-class lifestyle. Taking pot-shots at another class isn't war, nor is imposing a modest tax increase on those who have been showered with tax cuts for the last decade. Genuine class warfare is those at the very top working to keep everyone else far beneath them.

That's a story that doesn't fit neatly onto a bumpersticker. The standard reply to right-wing bloviating about “class warfare” is essentially an appeal to the authority of billionaire investor Warren Buffet, who famously said, "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."

It's an undeniably true statement: in 1979, those in the top 10th of 1 percent of the American economic ladder took in 1.11 percent of the nation's income, but by 2008, they were grabbing 5 percent. Those extremely wealthy few didn't become five times smarter and aren't working five times harder than they were in the late '70s, and the seismic shift in our economic structures wasn't an accident: the upward redistribution of wealth in this country has been a direct result of policies for which those at the top have lobbied hard – labor policies, trade deals, cuts to the social services that lifted some of those at the bottom out of poverty and a tax structure that shifted a big chunk of the burden from corporations and the wealthiest to ordinary working families.

Yet that retort only scratches the surface. Conservatives wage a far more damaging form of warfare when they attack the means by which people were once able to move up the economic ladder. They've done so with gusto, and as a result, the upward mobility that once defined America's great economic experiment is now little more than a fond memory, undermined by the Right's knee-jerk anti-governmentalism and an almost fascistic hostility to organized labor.

Most people aren't even aware of that reality. The belief that we live in a perfect meritocracy remains widespread. Around 3 percent of Americans are actually millionaires (or were before the crash of 2008), but in 2003, almost one in three told Gallup that they expected to be millionaires at some point in their lives. A 2006 poll found that more than half of those surveyed believed “Almost anyone can get rich if they put their mind to it.”

Conservative discourse about the “undeserving” poor being where they are because of some inherent personal faults might make some sense if we were all born with the same opportunities to get ahead. Tragically, however, in today’s economy, the single greatest predictor of how much an American child will earn in the future is how much his or her parents take home.

But, according to a study of public opinion in 25 wealthy countries, Americans are almost twice as likely as those in other advanced economies to believe that “people get rewarded for intelligence and skill.” At the same time, fewer than one in five say that coming from a wealthy family is “essential” or “very important” to getting ahead—significantly lower than the 25-country average. It’s impossible to overstate the impact these beliefs have on our policy debates. Americans are less than half as likely as people in other wealthy nations to believe that it’s “the responsibility of government to reduce differences in income.”

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