A good rule of thumb in contemporary American political discourse is that the louder GOP leaders and right-wing talking heads scream about a supposed transgression by "liberals," the more likely it is that they are themselves guilty of that transgression. The right's frothing condemnation last week of President Obama for engaging in "class warfare" is a nice illustration of the rule.
Two weeks ago, the Census Bureau released data showing that poverty rates in the United States had reached their highest level since 1993. Forty-six million Americans, just over 15 percent of the population, are now estimated to be below the poverty line. The picture for American children is especially bleak: 22 percent live in households that are below the poverty line, including a third of Hispanic children and an astonishing 40 percent of African-American kids. The right wing, led by Republican state television over at Fox News, likes to argue that poverty in America is largely chimerical. After all, they note, most poor people have refrigerators, television sets and microwaves, so how bad can it be? Since the poverty line for a family of four is about $22,000 a year, readers can decide for themselves whether official government statistics are too "generous" in counting poor people. Meanwhile, at the top of the economic ladder, wealthy Americans are doing exceptionally well, having pulled farther and farther away from the majority over the past 30 years.
Given the explosion in inequality over the past three decades and the now draconian budget-cutting taking place in states around the country, it's evermore inescapably the case that there are stark trade-offs between the taxation levels of the wealthy on the one hand and America's ability to provide basic social protection to ordinary folks on the other.
So when President Obama outlined his proposals last week for deficit reduction, he said he wanted to require Americans making more than $1 million a year to pay federal income taxes at a higher minimum rate than a significant chunk of millionaires are now paying. In the context of deficit reduction, one intent of this so-called Buffett rule (since Warren Buffett, who has pointed out that he pays federal income tax at a lower rate than does his secretary, is an advocate of the proposal) is to recognize that the growing gap between the rich and the rest needs to be reflected in greater shared sacrifice.
Republican leaders responded to the Buffett rule by screaming bloody murder over this intolerable foray into "class warfare." One might be puzzled by this attack. The GOP has engaged in a 30-year political campaign that has contributed substantially to a massive shift in wealth toward a tiny sliver at the top, while increasing the vulnerability of a vastly larger number of Americans.
For example, the GOP has
1) pushed relentlessly to pass large tax cuts for wealthy Americans, which have ballooned deficits and put increasing pressure on social safety net spending (and as Reagan's first budget director, David Stockman, admitted long ago, this was the intention)
2) generally obstructed increases in the minimum wage, which is lower today in real terms than it was in 1979
3) launched a wide-ranging assault on unions, a crucial guarantor of middle-class living standards
4) pushed financial deregulation—often abetted by Democrats, it should be noted—which has hugely enriched the wealthiest Americans, often at the expense of everyone else.
But Republican bleating about class warfare is not surprising, because this is the modus operandi of today's GOP: find the most audacious use of language possible to project their own moral failings onto their opponents.
Recall that this is the same party that pilloried the Democrats in 2010 for cutting Medicare, when the Affordable Care Act did nothing of the sort to actual Medicare recipients. Meanwhile, Republicans have been champing at the bit to dismantle Medicare for years and overwhelmingly passed Paul Ryan's plan this year to do precisely that which Republicans accused Democrats of doing: gut Medicare.
Remember Andres Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed dozens in Norway this summer at a camp for politically active young people? After it came to light that he'd expressed admiration for some well-known right-wing commentators in the United States, Fox News and its associated minions whipped themselves into a frenzy to argue that conservatives in the United States were being uniquely persecuted for their beliefs by the liberal media.
This orgy of self-pity reached its absurd peak when right-wing darling Sean Hannity asserted—with a straight face, no less—that conservatives never attack liberals with the venom to which the right wing is repeatedly subject. Hannity's incredible statement prompted a classic Jon Stewart segment displaying a litany of books authored by high-profile conservatives and promoted by Fox. These titles included: Liberal Fascism; Arguing With Idiots; Godless: The Church of Liberalism; Grand Jihad: How Liberalism and the Left Sabotage America; Unholy Alliance: American Islam and the American Left; Guilty: American Victims and Their Assault on America; and Control Freaks: Seven Ways Liberals Plan to Ruin your Life.
Republicans have screamed about death panels, claiming that health care reform would allow bureaucrats to play God in determining who gets life-saving treatments. This claim was false, of course. And furthermore, a regular feature of the status quo, which Republicans have staunchly defended, is that profit-driven private insurers do deny life-saving treatments for which they've decided they don't want to pay.
I'd be remiss not to note that Republicans relentlessly bash Democrats for trying to rob Americans of their individual freedoms, when Republicans frequently desire to do just that, as in the case of gay marriage.
Republicans have long warned about class warfare when Democrats flash even a hint of populist rhetoric. But it's especially squalid to watch them shriek about it now, when an obviously pro-business, pro-Wall Street president, acting in part on the recommendation of one the world's wealthiest men, offers a quite modest proposal for increasing taxes on a tiny subset of the population in a period when the gap between the super-rich and everyone else has continued to widen.
If we're going to have a serious discussion about class warfare, we'd do well to remember what The Economist, itself a pro-business publication, had to say recently on the topic: "It wouldn't hurt, though, if more of us were to give up any illusions we may have about which side of the class war our favourite major political party is fighting on: probably not yours."
If Obama's modest proposal represents class warfare in the direction the Republicans so desperately claim it is, then we need much more of it.