Class Illusions

09/28/2011 09:36 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

There's been a great deal of talk about social class in recent political discourse. Whenever President Obama says he wants to tax the rich, Republican politicians say he is engaging in "class warfare." Democrats strike back saying that class battles have been going on for a very long time and that, in fact, the rich have pretty much won the war. They then worry about the erosion of the middle class, which corresponds to the ever-expanding gap between haves and have-nots and the increasing number of our fellow citizens living in poverty.

Like the notion of race, social class is a multifaceted, hard-to-define concept. It's a subject we don't like to talk about in America.

When I teach introductory anthropology classes I always ask my students how many of them are middle class.

Everyone in the classroom raises his or her hand. In more than 30 years of teaching these courses, no one has ever volunteered that they are "working class" or "lower class." By the same token, no one has said they are "upper class." When I ask the students how they determine a person's social class, they invariably suggest that it depends upon income, education and occupation. But they can never agree what income level makes you middle class as opposed to working class, lower middle class, upper middle class or upper class. There is similar disagreement about occupation and education. Can we include in the middle class a public school teacher with a graduate degree who makes a paltry $40,000 a year? Can we include in the upper middle class a master plumber with no university degree, who earns $300,000 a year?

The teacher has a low salary, but knows a great deal about art. Does knowledge of the arts make you middle class, upper middle class or upper class?

The plumber has a large house and a swimming pool, but knows little about literature. Can such a lack of classical knowledge exclude him from the upper middle class?

And what about the earthy Texas oilman who has donated millions of dollars to museums and universities? Do these donations make him an American patrician?

And what about the "old money" patrician who has lost his family's fortune? Does his knowledge of yachts, polo and debutant balls, make him upper class?

If you look beneath the surface of social class, it is clear that it's difficult to define it through objective criteria. Our perception of social class tends to be subjective and deeply embedded in our culture. Like race, it is a concept that uses perceived social and economic status to divide Americans into distinct groups.

And yet, we try our best to avoid thinking about class division in America. Like my students, most Americans want to believe that they are middle class, and this notion, which goes along with the myths of American social equality and equal opportunity, makes us feel good. We don't like to discuss issues that threaten our social myths, the stories we like to tell ourselves about ourselves.

In the game of power, however, those who want to maintain their authority and legitimacy spin myths that make "the people" feel good about themselves. In so doing they create smokescreens that obscure what's really going on. In the current debate about President Obama's proposed job's bill, Republicans cynically cry class warfare. They don't want us to ponder the inconvenient fact that the middle class is eroding, that almost 50 million our fellow citizens do not have health insurance, or that gap between rich and power has now expanded to record levels. They cry "class warfare" to convince us that the "evil" government wants to take your hard earned money and give it to some unemployed person too lazy to look for a job. They cry class warfare to hide a redistribution wealth that takes the hard earned money of working Americans and gives it to the rich -- maintaining corporate tax loopholes, granting rebates to oil companies, and extending the Bush tax cuts.

It is perhaps a sad truth, but it seems that most Republicans have come to believe that telling the "Big Lie" works well in the arena of politics. Contrary to the historical record, they say again and again that you can reduce the deficit, to take one of many examples, by lowering taxes. Even though this doesn't make any mathematical sense, they repeat this mantra again and again, convincing millions of "middle class" and "working class" people to vote against their interests.

It's time for Democrats and Independents to begin to employ the Big Truth. As inconvenient as these truths might be, if we repeat the mantras again and again we may be able to convince millions of "middle class" and "working class" people to vote for their interests and reaffirm the American social contract.