12/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Election Seen Through a Class Prism: Why Obama Will be Our Next President

Class is the real "C-word" in America. The pretense is that class is a European thing. The myth is since we cast off a monarchy at independence we are all somehow middle class.

Of course nothing is further from the truth. It is in the interest of the class that rules to keep that pretense going. But there are times when the charade crumbles. We are living through one of those times now.

The economic collapse has exposed the fault lines of class running through the country. In these rare periods the class that is always aware it's a class uses its Republican Party front organization to condemn defenders of common interests. They accused them of engaging in "class warfare" for daring to oppose the very same warfare that is always waged against them.

Republicans have been successful in recent elections inducing workers and poor Americans to support the class that fights against their interests. Giving tax breaks to the wealthy; shipping jobs overseas and sending their daughters and sons to die in wars necessary only to enrich the economic elite is hardly in common folks' interests. Yet these folks have supported Republican candidates. Why? Not only because of single issues like abortion, patriotism and guns, but because they bought the ideology of extreme economic individualism and a skewered sense of elitism.

Rulers and their media have turned the charge of "elitism" on its head. They have obscured growing economic elitism and focused exclusively on cultural and intellectual elitism. If incomes were more or less even, individuals would distinguish themselves through their intellectual and cultural achievements. In a system where the populace is kept down culturally to more or less the same level, individuals distinguish themselves by how much money they make.

Republicans encourage workers and the poor to deride those who rise above the nation intellectually rather than those who rise above it through wealth, even if it is accumulated through corporate malfeasance or financial sleight of hand. The Republicans prod people to condemn East Coast and California "elites", while protecting their elite corporate and Wall Street allies.

In a perfect world, instead of cultural democracy and economic elitism, there would be the opposite.

This distorted idea of "elitism" was an early issue in the McCain-Obama battle. Obama was branded the elitist because he is smart and a polished speaker. McCain wasn't an elitist, though he owned more houses than he could remember. McCain seemed to be getting away with it. When he chose Sarah Palin it seemed a brilliant move to get the anti-intellectual Joe Six Pack vote.

In good times a message of intense economic self-interest works because even the worse-off believe their ship will come in some day.

But the economic collapse has seriously damaged the Republican idea that it's all up to the individual and society be damned. It has especially put in doubt their view of government as interloper.

What they long tried to hide is now plain to see: if you take the referees out of a football match the stronger side will at first run up the score in great excitement but eventually order will deteriorate and the game will be destroyed for everyone.

Financiers have a responsible job. But instead of orderly providing capital to society to run an economy, they gambled with other people's money to enrich themselves, bringing the economy down around us.

Government came to the rescue to clean up their mess with socialism for the rich: the nationalization of big parts of the financial sector. Could there be a starker repudiation of everything the Republicans believe in? Could anything be more embarrassing for them? The truth about class privilege became plain to many average Americans who'd bought the Republican story.

The collapse opened the way for Obama to deliver a more progressive message. It is not surprising that it has worked so far.

McCain responded with the S-word. He attacked Obama for being a Socialist at the very moment the socialist tactic of nationalization is saving the country he claims to put first. It is almost as silly as Sarah Palin complaining in her debate with Joe Biden about government intervention on the very day the government was acting to rescue the country from the hands of the economic elitists; or as dumb as McCain complaining about "spreading the wealth" when a). $750 billion is being spread to negligent bankers and b). Americans losing their homes and jobs might not object to wealth being spread around a little.

McCain and Palin have tried to use Socialism as a charge to bring Obama down because they are counting on confusion about what Socialism means. What kind of socialism are they talking about? Many Americans who lived through the Cold War have a knee-jerk reaction against what they see as the Big Brother state controlling their lives.

"Now is not the time to experiment with [spreading the wealth]," Palin told voters in Latrobe, Pa., last Friday. "They do that in other countries where people are not free and where work ethic is not rewarded. And when an entrepreneurial spirit is absolutely stifled. And that's exactly what his plan will do to Americans and to the children who we are trying to teach work ethic and the reward for hard work."

This fear tactic rests on Americans not knowing the difference between Stockholm and pre-1990 Moscow. It's not clear whether Palin knows the difference herself.

There have been two extreme economic systems in the past century--Soviet-style socialism in which the government owns everything in a command economy and laissez faire or market fundamentalism where government has almost no role, which is what the Bush administration gave us. Both were utter disasters.

The middle ground combines both systems, mixing free enterprise with heavy government regulation to create the successful Social Democracy of Scandinavia and Western Europe, where average people have more freedoms than we do. It is not utopian. It exists and it has brought social peace and prosperity. They let you run a business too, but government corrals you with needed regulations, lest you get too greedy and threaten universal health care, free universities, long-term unemployment and other benefits for all citizens. Curbing greed puts a check on the army occupying foreign countries too. Some wealthy Europeans wanted to break free of this corral to be as rich as their counterparts across the Atlantic. But the collapse has turned even free-marketers like Nicolas Sarkozy back to Social Democracy.

The collapse presents a President Obama with an opportunity not seen since FDR. He can seize this new popular awareness of the dangers of unbridled capitalism to usher in a new American era that builds on FDR's reforms. If taxpayers can afford $750 billion for the banks it should be easier to pay less for national health care, more accessible education, infrastructure upgrades and investment in alternative energies.

Obama faces three obstacles. First he must tread carefully with a populace uncertain of the difference between Stockholm and Moscow. He must carefully explain the delicate balance between valid self-interest and responsibility to community. Without using the highly charged S-word, he must teach the nation the benefits of a mixed economy, government regulation and nationalization of health care, not just banks.

The second obstacle might be Congress, even with a 60-seat Democratic majority. While Republicans and John McCain were the greatest proponents of government deregulation of business and Wall Street there has been troublesome bi-partisan support for it. Bill Clinton could have vetoed the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act that his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin cooked up. That Act was put in after the previous Depression to prevent commercial banks from gambling with the people's money.

Democrats, including Obama, supported the $750 billion bailout package. Even Republican strategist Ed Rollins said wealthy Congressmen of both parties were pleasing their Wall Street backers with that vote and not their constituents. Wall Street had paid for the service with campaign contributions. It was a kind of insurance: when they screwed up, Congress-for-the-rich would save them. It was House Republicans voting against the earlier version who heard the outcry from a heartland whose eyes were suddenly opened to class privilege in America.

The third obstacle might be Obama himself. He will get a big mandate tomorrow. If Bush could use a sliver of a mandate to invade Iraq, Obama should have the political capital to make serious changes to the system.

The legacy of the Depression of '09 will be largely in his hands.

Every 80 years or so these economic cataclysms occur, vindicating the Left who carp on the sidelines during soaring markets, waiting for a collapse since wealth and power are never voluntarily given up. This is a rare moment to rearrange priorities, to make the system fairer for more Americans. After all, isn't democracy the widest possible diffusion of wealth and power?

Socialism hasn't been an issue in a presidential campaign since Nixon accused McGovern of it in 1972. Before the collapse no one would believe it would become one again. Obama joked that the extent of his socialism was sharing some toys as a child. It's a good joke days before an election. But it's no joking matter after Jan. 20th.

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