The media and cyberspace are frothing with the recent charge by Rep. Paul Ryan that President Obama's call for returning to pre-Bush tax rates for Americans with gross incomes over $1 million a year is "class warfare." The Right jumps on that wording to paint the President as launching an un-American attack on people whose help we need to create jobs. The Left cries foul, claiming that "class warfare" is just another slogan that the Tea Party has hauled out to paint them as anti-American socialists.
Both sides should calm down, because the blame belongs to almost all of us. We have been practicing political class warfare for years. It's only the slogan that is now leaping into the headlines. What are these if not examples of political class warfare?
• Attacks by the Left that Republicans are out to dismantle the social safety net
• Attacks by the Right that the Democrats are socialists intent on expanding the welfare state
• Efforts to deny to gays and lesbians the right to marry
• Attacks from all sides on government workers as the cause of their misfortunes
• Attacks on business leaders for their bonuses and salaries
• Charges that illegal immigrants are ruining the nation and "dropping babies" to benefit from American citizenship
• Attacks on public and teacher unions for the benefits gained through collective bargaining
• Charges that Republicans are gun-toting, Bible-carrying religious fanatics
• Charges that Democrats are elite, Ivy League intellectuals who have forgotten "Joe the Plumber"
• Attacks on Muslim Americans as fostering terrorism when they want to build mosques
Class warfare is not new in America. Followers of Thomas Jefferson accused the Federalists of building a strong central government through currying the favor of bankers and "stock-jobbers." Followers of John Adams accused the Republics of seeking "mobocracy" through their disdain for rule by gentlemen.
In Jefferson and Adams' time, of course, "class warfare" would soon be muted by an economically and militarily rising America. What makes the current climate worrisome is the fear that America has reached the apogee of its military and economic power and may be in decline. On a personal level, certainly, most Americans seem convinced that their material futures are grim and their children's futures may possibly be worse. Charges of "class warfare" in these circumstances seem to have more permanence and take on the appearance of Americans fighting each other for pieces of a diminishing pie.
The social fabric of America is being tested. Political advantage -- and protecting what we have against the encroachment of economic hardship -- argues for polarizing Americans, and we seem to be doing quite well at that. But no side is likely to gain the final and long-term advantage from this (and woe to us as a nation if they did). In the end, we still have to live, work, interact with and sustain each other. Our only hope to grow as a nation is to do it together, through mutual sacrifice and supportive hard work.
We do an incalculable disservice to ourselves and our posterity if we exacerbate "class warfare." We need to lower the tone and restrain the attacks, lest what seems like a powerful tool for short-term gain turns from slogan to reality.