01/26/2012 03:49 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Class Illusions Revisited

It is becoming increasingly clear that the issue of social class will determine who wins the 2012 presidential election. Following the lead set by President Obama in his SOTU address, Democrats will mine a treasure trove of non-partisan data on social inequality, income redistribution and unfair tax rates to suggest that we "level the playing field." They will argue that we should give everyone an equal shot at success. The GOP candidates and spokespeople will have predictable knee-jerk reactions to any discussion of social and economic inequality, suggesting that anyone who talks about the social and economic divide is engaging in "class warfare."

The issue of "class warfare" popped up recently in the tirade of GOP responses to President Obama's rhetorical return to economic populism. In South Carolina, Mitt Romney told a questioner that any mention of class division (the economic advantages the richest 1% percent of the population as opposed to the economic disadvantages of everyone else) is socially divisive. He said that President Obama is trying to divide us at a time when we need to be united in common cause. In his response to President Obama's SOTU speech, Mitch Daniels, Indiana's GOP Governor, brought up the same issue.

No feature of the Obama Presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others. As in previous moments of national danger, we Americans are all in the same boat. If we drift, quarreling and paralyzed, over a Niagara of debt, we will all suffer, regardless of income, race, gender, or other category.

Like Romney, Governor Daniels, ignoring increasing economic and social disparity, suggests that Barack Obama has failed to unite Americans. For their part, President Obama and other Democrats continue to appeal to fairness. If we all play by the same rules and pay our fair share of taxes, we will move forward into the 21st Century with clarity of purpose.

If this conflict of philosophical perspectives is indicative, the central political question of 2012 election may well turn out to be: is there class mobility in the United States, or have powerful global economic forces and shortsighted government policies undermined the American Dream? These fundamental questions, of course, help to shape our perceptions about social class.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post on this topic, most Americans don't like to talk about social class. We like to believe that everyone is middle class. We like to believe America is the land of equal opportunity. In my introductory anthropology class two days ago, I asked the students to characterize American culture. One student said: "It is the land of equal opportunity. If you work hard, you can become a great success."

I asked him: "Does the child of a sanitation worker have the same set of opportunities as a Vanderbilt or a DuPont?"

Awkward silence.

We like the myth of a classless society because it corresponds nicely to the stories we like to tell ourselves about the United States and the American Dream. For these reasons, the GOP spin on social divisiveness gets some traction in the public. Because we live in a land of "equal opportunity," many prosperous Americans like to recount their "rags to riches" story. Upon hearing these stories, many people say: This is America, if they can do, so can I!

Indeed, the GOP will do everything and anything to keep circulating an interconnected set of social and political myths that divert public attention away from American social inequality. Using unlimited pools of non-transparent corporate money, their Super Pacs will bombard voters with an interminable series of political ads that will weave tapestries of half-truths, lies and illusions.

GOP candidates and Super Pacs are likely to promote the following themes. In America, equal opportunity has erased class divisions. In America, business is good and social welfare is bad. In America less government is better than more government. In America low taxes decrease the deficit and increase freedom.

Despite past and present barrages of Super Pac propaganda, there is emerging class resentment in the U.S. These days people talk much more openly about American social inequality. People resent the fact that in 2010 Mitt Romney paid taxes at a rate of 13.9 percent while a middle class person with an income of, say $50,000, would have to pay at a rate of 30 percent. Most people would say that this disparity not only makes little sense in a deficit-plagued economy, but also is patently unfair. What's more, increasing numbers of people feel that corporate money and -- greed -- has rendered them powerless and disenfranchised. Accordingly President Obama and Democratic candidates will argue that smart government is a good way to confront these social and economic issues. They will acknowledge the increasing division between the haves and have-nots in American society. They will suggest that the erosion of the middle class has been bad for our economy and for our way of life.

In short, there are two political narratives at play in 2012. The GOP narrative suggests that in America opportunity is equal and unlimited, which means that in a classless society individuals can compete for success in a society of limited government and personal responsibility. The Democratic narrative suggests that in an America where, according to a 2011 special report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty, we need to do everything we can to rebuild the fast disappearing middle class -- the only path to a prosperous future.

Whoever wins the debate on these competing narratives about social class wins the 2012 election.