Class Warfare

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 20, 2011


The 3 trillion dollar budget plan proposed by President Obama—which includes 1.5 trillion in tax increases, calls for 580 in entitlement cuts and anticipates 1.1 trillion in savings from the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—has been criticized by Republicans as class warfare.  The particularities of American politics explain why seeking to build support among the poor and the disadvantaged is not necessarily a strategy that will actually generate stronger electoral support for Democrats.


In any country where the median income has remained stagnant in real terms for the past 40 years and poverty has reached 15.1% (and seems poised to be the highest in 2012 since 1965), campaigning against income inequality would seem the inevitable way to electoral victory for all politicians, left and right. After all, if salaries have stagnated and inequality has increased, more and more people are making salaries below the mean. A political party that campaigns on taking from the wealthy to give to the poor would naturally have a larger electoral base. As the percentage of people who make salaries above the mean increases, the number of those that should be against redistribution should decrease.


However, the U.S. follows a different pattern. Because the country is built on the premise that governments should provide for a leveled playing field and facilitate competitive markets, inequality is not seen as evidence of injustice or lack of government support but as the inevitable result of individual effort, entrepreneurship or fortune.  Moreover, as the U.S. championed the cause against communism in the 20th century, any political arguments that might be comparable with the ideology the U.S. so fiercely combated during the Cold War can easily be caricatured as class warfare and combated with a strong nationalist rhetoric.


As a result, while democrats occasionally use poverty, growing inequality and the poor as campaign slogans, Republicans always prefer a strong pro-middle class platform that promotes capitalism and focus on expanding opportunities, which is normally taken as reducing taxes and limiting the scope of government intervention.


Critics of the Republican viewpoint often point that expansion of opportunities depends on a well-functioning and sufficiently funded state. Yet, they often fail to recognize that Americans are inclined to believe that government is more the problem than the solution. Those who campaign for stronger government end up being characterized as advocates of bigger government.   Moreover, Americans often disassociate many government programs from the federal government. The anecdotal sign that often pops out in Tea Party rallies sums it up very clearly: “keep government out of my Medicare.”  


Mistrust of government is negatively correlated with income. The poor are also more inclined to support politicians who campaign against government intervention. Andrew Gelman, an American political scientist, wrote a book in 2008, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, where he summarized the apparent contradiction in American politics: while rich people vote Republican, rich states tend to vote Democratic.


The Republican electoral base is strongest among the wealthy elite. However, Republicans also draw considerable support among the middle class and the poor—though not among minorities, who are overrepresented among the poor.  A combination of wealthy Americans and middle class and poor White Americans is a powerful, and well-funded, voting bloc that makes Republicans competitive in every election.  Given high unemployment and increasing poverty, the nationalist and anti-big government electoral base is poised to increase in 2012. Not surprisingly, polls show that Obama would lose in a race against an unnamed Republican candidate if the election were held this week.


Fortunately for Obama—and perhaps despite his own weaknesses and mistakes as President—the outlook is far better for his re-election chances. When faced with any of the Republican presidential hopefuls, Obama wins in most polls. For socially moderate and market-friendly globalized Republicans being against government intervention means different things than for poor, marginalized and religious conservatives.  Moreover, Republicans have also abandoned efforts to attract minorities. Support for Obama among blacks remains strong (88%). Though it has declined in recent months, support for Obama among Latinos (48%) is still higher than among Whites (33%).  By letting the party adopt extreme conservative views on religion and social issues, Republicans risk alienating moderate voters with higher levels of education. Obama has stronger support among Americans with college education than among those with lower levels of education. The contrast is especially sharp among Whites. Whites with low levels of education are the demographic group least supportive of Obama.


As the budget deficit battle between Obama and Republicans continues, and is increasingly contaminated by the 2012 presidential election, references to class warfare will become common as Republicans will seek to build a stronger support base among whites whose declining income and lowering social status makes them even more distrustful of government intervention.  Only if Republicans can use that aggressive rhetoric without alienating moderate middle class Americans, they will have a chance in 2012. Otherwise, Obama will win with the support of younger—and better educated—white Americans, with the strong support of Blacks and with the support of Latinos—who will end up voting for him because of their rejection of Republicans than enthusiasm for Obama.