Let's Explore the History of 'Class Warfare'

Recently, Warren Buffett remarked that America was engaged in "class warfare." Conservative reaction was immediate, indignant, and anticipated. When President Obama followed up this week with his "Buffett Tax," conservatives again were aghast.

Words like "class warfare" are not commonly used anymore -- they were considered anachronisms from the days of "commies and socialists." Nevertheless, they are appropriate -- and Americans should not be horrified by them.

The fact is, "class warfare" has been an essential part of American history for more than a century. As the industrial revolution gained traction, and as America became less of an agrarian society, wealth and capital began to be accumulated and concentrated on a severely uneven basis. Between 1870 and 1900, the share of national wealth held by the richest 1 percent of households peaked at around 45 percent. The results were violent strikes, the rise of unions and the beginnings of the socialist movement in the United States. In short, "class warfare."

In the early 1900s, Republican Teddy Roosevelt arrived on the political scene to fight the excesses of the infamous "robber barons" whose greed had undermined economic fairness in America. He clashed with the superwealthy, like J.P. Morgan, and ordered the Justice Department to take antitrust action against monopolists. He introduced railroad regulation, and food and drug safety. He pushed for the adoption of an income tax, and a federal estate tax on the inheritances of wealthy families. He set precedents in federal regulation of manufacturing and commerce. He launched the federal government on an ambitious program of environmental protection and conservation. He was truly engaging in "class warfare."

Later, another Roosevelt, FDR, would engage in similar "class warfare" with the New Deal. His election in 1932 and his subsequent presidential terms marked a historic political realignment, creating a new Democratic majority of liberals, workers, immigrants, African-Americans and women, and laid the foundations of a limited American version of the welfare state. During World War II, he raised the top tax rate to 92 percent.

In short, what we really have here is a semantic argument. Conservatives know that "warfare" is a hot word and might resonate with the public. But call it any name you wish, and the reality of class warfare is the same (as defined by Wikipedia): "the tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socioeconomic interests between people of different classes."

This tension has been part of our culture (indeed of virtually all societies) forever. While violence may result from this class tension in many societies, in America we have generally found a better way to conduct this "war." With the ballot box.

Buffett reminds us that "my class is winning." Indeed it is. No need to revisit all the statistics, but quickly: the top 1 percent of Americans take home 24 percent of all income and control 42 percent of all financial wealth. The bottom 80 percent hold only 7 percent of the financial wealth of our nation. Some 46 million Americans live in poverty.

Obviously, this condition creates precisely the kind "tension and antagonism" that constitutes "class warfare." Those who deny it are disingenuous; those who decry it are insincere.

As to how to redress this, while the ballot box is the preferred American way, it is not being employed by those who would benefit by electing a more fair-minded Congress, or a hero in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt. In fact, in the 2010 election, which turned our country even further to the right, only 41 percent of Americans bothered to vote.

That is concerning, because other options for addressing this state of affairs are far less desirable. While conservatives can bask in their recent election victory and the superwealthy can continue to pile on unimaginable riches and the lobbyists for special interests can continue to wield their undue influence, warning flags should be raised.

"Class warfare," of whatever kind, will not ultimately be good for the country, nor for the wealthy, nor, for that matter, for capitalism itself. History has shown that whenever wealth becomes excessively concentrated, tension and stress are created.

Class warfare -- by this or any other name -- is a condition that Americans of all political stripes must work to mitigate ... and soon.

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