“Since when do we in America accept this alien and discredited theory of social and class warfare? Since when do we in America endorse the politics of envy and division?” — Ronald Reagan, 1982
When Ronald Reagan spoke those words, the American economy was still a colossus astride the globe — its workers unchallenged by the Chinese, undaunted by the Japanese and South Koreans, barely aware of low-wage Mexicans. American factories still hummed with the hustle of well-paid workers assembling automobiles, stitching garments and making reams of silver halide film.
That was then. Over the intervening years, Korean and Japanese manufacturers downsized Detroit, Chinese laborers seduced Steve Jobs, and technological advances virtually killed Kodak. The loss of those jobs and the wages they provided is the central dilemma of our time.
As the U.S. manufacturing sector has withered, so has the prosperity that fueled the hopes and dreams of a large and stable working class. The factory jobs that boosted high school graduates (or even drop-outs) into middle-class lifestyles — complete with health insurance and comfortable pensions — are now on the endangered species list.
It’s no wonder, then, that the trite old phrase “class warfare,” which Republicans still wield, sounds so stale and outdated. Too many Americans are aware that they are the casualties of an economic cataclysm — if not an actual war. The old drumbeat of “class warfare” won’t dismiss their questions about a system that increasingly favors the fat cats.
A recent Pew Center study underlines the impotence and emptiness of that bromide. The study found that 66 percent of Americans now see class conflict as looming large in the civic landscape, a more potent force, they believe, than racial conflict.
Credit the Great Recession for stripping bare the economic facts of life in this country, where median hourly wages have been stagnant since the 1970s, even as the richest accumulated a larger and larger share of the wealth. For many years, the average household got by well enough because more women worked outside the home, credit was readily available and home prices were soaring, causing homeowners to feel wealthier than they were. Many used the equity in their houses to fund vacations, new cars and, of course, emergency purchases such as health care.
But when the bottom fell out, they were left awash in debt. Millions lost their jobs, their homes, their health insurance, their savings. They have figured out that a formidable work ethic isn’t enough to guarantee economic stability. And they wonder why the mega-wealthy — men such as GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney — seem so out of touch with the plight of the masses.
It’s not just that Romney made $42 million over the last two years while not holding a job. It’s that he also uses phrases such as “not very much” to describe income from speaking engagements that totaled $374,327 in one year. If that had been his only income, he still would have earned more than all but the richest 2 percent.
Romney seems a decent man. He certainly didn’t conjure up the global and technological forces that have wreaked havoc on the working class, laid waste to the U.S. manufacturing sector and wrecked many a retirement plan. But neither he nor his party has a coherent plan for dealing with those forces.
They don’t want to even admit those forces exist. Romney and his GOP rivals have refused to concede that the U.S. is not a nation where anyone can get ahead, where the rewards are unlimited if you work hard enough, where the opportunities are there for the taking. Romney, indeed, has gone so far as to say that income inequality should be discussed only “in quiet rooms.”
Happily, Occupy Wall Street helped bring the conversation out in the open, where it belongs, and it will be a central theme of the presidential campaign, as it should. If this is “class warfare,” it’s a war that needs to be fought.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).