Class warfare? Not really.
What we have had over the past several months -- as frequently happens during political debates and almost always during a national election period -- is the substitution of red-hot rhetoric and hot button phrases for a meaningful discussion on the American condition and what is acceptable or unacceptable. We have had sound bites rather than substance, personal attacks rather than policy arguments, and ideology rather than ideas.
While this form of "clash warfare" may appeal to a minority of ardent supporters on both sides of the aisle, it does nothing to advance the national dialogue or to respond to the economic and social concerns of the majority of Americans. For them, class warfare is not the issue -- fairness and opportunity are.
As Andrew Kohut, President of the Pew Research Center, stated at the end of a recent piece that he wrote for the New York Times, "While a December Gallup poll found few respondents wanting the government to reduce the income gap between the rich and poor, 70 percent said it was important for the government to increase opportunities for people to get ahead. What the public wants is not a war on the rich but more policies that promote opportunity."
It is significant to note that the desire for enhanced government involvement is not a Democratic or Republican perspective. Approximately one-quarter of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters have annual family incomes of under $30,000. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in early October of 2011 found that 57 percent of this lower-income group said that the government does too little for poor people.
So, the populace in general is in search of answers to important questions. Sadly, too many politicians, in search of nominations, prefer pandering to problem-solving
That's the bad news. The good news is that there is an emerging body of literature and knowledge available for those politicians who are willing to move beyond "clash warfare," do their homework, give appropriate consideration to America's "class" problems and then to decide how to work together to resolve them.
These writings range from Charles Murray's, ComIng Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, from the more conservative end of the spectrum to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer -- And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class from the more liberal end. Both of these books are about class. Both agree that there is a widening gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in America. Their insights and explanations, however, vary.
Murray calls attention to and emphasizes the dramatic values and behavioral differences between what he labels the "new upper class" and the "new lower class." These include: the percentage of employed individuals, marriage rates, in-tact families, amount of TV watched, obesity rates, and community involvement. Hacker and Pierson concentrate on the policy-making process, the nature of our institutional rules such as the filibuster, and the role that powerful organizations, such as big business and those representing the "elite," to describe and detail how we got to where we are today in terms of class in the United States.
There are numerous other books that merit attention. To name just two more, Robert Frank's, The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good, in which Frank provides an exploration of traditional economic theory and how it applies, or doesn't to the country's current circumstances. Dante Chinni and James Gimpel's, Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth About the "Real" America. In their book, Chinni and Gimpel describe the 12 community types (e.g, Evangelical Epicenters, Monied Burbs, Service Worker Centers, and Tractor Country) which make up the nation. While not directly focused on class, as some of the other works that we have cited -- between and among the demographic portraits and patterns laid out in this book is a cultural narrative that will have a dramatic impact on the future of the nation.
We suggest these readings as a starting point for those elected officials and candidates for office who are prepared to engage in a serious and substantive analysis of America's "class" issues rather than in superficial and shallow demagoguery. Our citizens deserve and need politicians who are willing to confront the new realities of the nation's economic structure.
In spite of the gap -- call it a chasm -- between the haves and have-nots in our society, we Americans remain a resilient and optimistic lot. As Andrew Kohut noted in his NY Times piece, "In one recent Pew poll, 58 percent of respondents said they believed that people who wanted to get ahead could make it if they were willing to work hard."
Just working hard may no longer be enough, however. As Charles Murray asserts in the prologue to Coming Apart, "But along with the continuing individual American success stories is a growing majority of people who run the institutions of America who do share tastes, preferences and culture. They increasingly constitute a class. They are also increasingly isolated... This growing isolation has been accompanied by growing ignorance about the country over which they have so much power."
Clash warfare or class warfare -- neither choice should be acceptable. Those in power and our leaders have the power to obviate both alternatives through proactive and constructive actions. If they do not do so soon, the consequences will be inevitable and unintended.