A New Class War?
January 1, 1970With President Bush's proposed tax plan, the tanking economy, and the 2004 presidential race on the horizon, there's been growing talk these days about an emerging "class warfare."
This, too, shall pass. Americans aren't especially clear with themselves over class questions. Oddly, in recent years, most Americans have become more open to discussions of race than whether, say, George W. Bush, with his aristocratic pedigree has the best interests of working people in mind.
Of course, class differences and anxieties about class are nothing new in the United States. Recognition of class differences has always been mired in muddy thinking about class and about race, equal opportunity and a democratic ideal we've come to call the "meritocracy."
Americans don’t openly talk about questions of class, and they don’t think clearly about class because the very act of thinking about it crashes quickly into the foundational ideologies of the democracy.
Indeed, Americans like to think of themselves as history's grand exception to the class question. Early in American history, we bought into the simple but profound narrative that we were a nation of economic transients, that, for most Americans, one's class was a mere stop-gap on the road to a better life. We believed that the rights of opportunity and the promise of individual achievement far eclipsed any pitfalls of individualism and capitalism. We had, after all, evolved past such rigid class structures that characterized Britain and Europe.
To a significant degree -- say, as measured by total economic activity -- that has been the case. And, it has not been the case. Of the industrialized nations, the United States’s distribution of wealth is among those most highly skewed toward the rich. In recent years, especially, an emerging class of highly educated and skilled elites have been magnificent beneficiaries of historic shifts in the economy from manufacturing to services and information. And the rest of Americans have suffered economic stagnancy or even decline. The economic gaps between the "thinking class" and the rest of America, between the educated and undereducated, have worsened steadily in recent years.
In another country and in another time, this characteristic of free markets -- this history --might have prompted a reaction more concrete and actively political than the widespread public malaise indicated in recent public opinion polls. But Americans don't do history, as it were, which is the same thing as saying Americans don't do class. To think about history is to acknowledge -- and do something about in the realm of public policy -- the profound effects of class differences in American society.
But instead, we avert our eyes or take our mental notes, if even that. The American class system is rarely openly acknowledged or talked about in any serious way. The envy, shame, disdain aroused by class differences lurk anxiously between the main texts of American discourse, like ugly bugs beneath the green grass of a David Lynch film. When these feelings about class do erupt into the open, we tend to shove them into less threatening pigeonholes.
No, America’s class distinctions and the conflict they engender are hardly new, but this conflict has leapt out of the context of politics and policy -- and out of history itself. While our collective anxieties and bewilderment about class have intensified in subtle but significant ways, our growing discomfort about class is being played out almost exclusively in the realm of popular culture, the grand sublimating force of our age that does little to lessen the harsh realities of class differences, and often disguises them as something else.