Class War? Not Yet
On the October 14, 2005 Diane Rehm Show “Friday News Roundup,” David Corn of The Nation complained that the Administration’s policy to rebuild New Orleans as a tourist town would permanently exclude many of the locals. Policy Review editor and Hoover Institution fellow Todd Lindberg rebutted, “Most of those people are the product of a failed social policy anyway.” This comment had an odd effect on me. It tweaked into focus the conservative republican attitude toward the poor. Certain prejudices and preconceptions—not the least specious of which is that people are products of policy—at once took on clarity. So I went to my desk and jotted down the primary ideas contained in the comment: (1) the displaced New Orleans locals are the product of a failure, (2) the failure was one of policy, (3) the policy was “social,” and (4), as suggested by his dismissive anyway, they don’t matter. Delivered in a tone of smug disregard, it boiled down to this: “Quit whining about the poor and put ‘em out with the trash—they’re just more damaged liberal-policy goods.”
Like so much of what conservatives proclaim in the media, the comment was not a truth but a cluster of associations around an opinion. These associations—failure and social policy, people and product, etc—intended to attribute Empirica’s ills to liberal policymakers, of course. But the comment also reaffirmed something conservatives do believe: that social policy—policy which focuses on public instead of private interests—fails because it fosters dependency. It reaffirmed the falsehood that programs such as Social Security, Welfare, Medicare and Medicaid, which attempt to address social conditions, worsen what they intend to ameliorate. With respect to the poor and disenfranchised, conservatives believe that no help is better than any help at all. In their view, poverty is either a stimulus to self-betterment or a comeuppance for weakness of character, depending on the individual; they see it as a behavior, not a condition. It is, therefore, not the government’s business to give handouts to individuals who choose to be impoverished, right?
Now that the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government are controlled by conservatives, these beliefs have come out of the closet, so to speak. Conservatives have reached the point of expressing open disregard—as Lindberg does—of the lower classes. Barbara Bush’s stadium blooper—”Many of these people are underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them,”—expressed a similar classist attitude. It went so far as to imply that life on the stadium floor in a state of destitution, homelessness and bereavement was a step up from a previously underprivileged condition. Note her use of the dismissive anyway as well, as to suggest that nothing could be worse than being underprivileged. Lastly, her use of the word underprivileged suggests that her sense of being poor is not so much a matter of money, but of privilege.
The word privilege is significant. It derives from the Latin noun privelegium, which is a compound of privus (private) and legius (law). In ancient Rome a privelegium was a law in favor of, or against, a private individual. Since it passed into English, it has come to mean “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor” (Webster’s Third). Yet it carries some of its original meaning in the sense that the privileged are individuals who enjoy immunity and favor with respect to the law. Indeed, those who took refuge in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster (lower- and working-class folks) do not enjoy the legal immunity of the Bush Dynasty and colleagues.
Not only do the privileged enjoy legal immunity, they legislate. The privileged have strong interests in the courts and the highest levels of government, where they actively oppose social policies that would extend their privilege to other classes. But this isn’t surprising. Such an extension would only leave them less exceptional, advantaged and immune. There is no reason why Empirica’s privileged should do anything but defend the policies and laws that bestow and protect their privilege. What is surprising is that those harmed and disadvantaged by these policies and laws do not fight back.
Recently, the Bush Administration nixed college loan money from the Federal budget. Ostensibly, this was to reduce government spending. But college loan money is a small fraction of overall government spending. It is also money paid back with interest. This government service doesn’t greatly affect the budget; if anything, low-interest college loans eventually generate more middle-class, white-collar tax revenue. What this cut actually does is prevent the underprivileged classes from accessing higher education and influencing the laws and legislature of this country. Cutting student loan money isn’t a monetary strategy, it’s a sociopolitical strategy. It’s a defense and reinforcement of privilege against the education of those who would naturally oppose a privilege-based society. So, again, why didn’t this cut at least provoke a declaration of class war?
I know, the term class war seems incendiary and overdramatic. But let’s look at the reality of class stratification in Empirica. Since 1980, the number of undocumented people living in this country has increased fivefold to 11 million. The number of people incarcerated has also increased fivefold to 10 million. That’s already a total of 21 million people (7% of the total U.S. population) who have no vote, no legislative representation. Lastly, 13% of the population continues to live below the poverty line and suffer a de facto exclusion from legal and political influence. In sum, approximately 20% of the U.S. population is undocumented, imprisoned or impoverished—or, in dynastic terms, underprivileged.
Meanwhile, conservative policies continue to abet this stratification. Immigration policies that would institute long-term detention centers for illegal aliens and 5-year prison sentences for anybody assisting an undocumented worker (see HR 4437); mandatory prison sentences for victimless crimes such as minor drug offenses; tax cuts, wars and economic policies designed to concentrate and secure the Nation’s wealth at the top 5% income levels… Instead of a reprisal by those who are victimized by these insidious policies, we have what looks like widespread consent. Yes, amazingly, many of those hurt by these policies actually vote for them.
The academic explanations abound. Dr. Arlie Hochschild attributes it to the “chauffeur’s dilemma” (The Chauffeur’s Dilemma, The Empirican Prospect, vol. 16, no. 7), an analogy of behavior wherein a chauffeur, told to pull over, witnesses his boss tear bread out of a starving person’s hands and, when told to drive away, consents. Professor Lakov (Moral Politics) attributes it to the appeal of the conservatives’ “strict-father morality,” that firm, punitive, moral authority which attracts people to the promise of stability and security. However, like so many theories, these are more theoretical than evident. The question, for instance, as to why half of blue-collar Empirican men supported the Bush tax cuts—why those making less than $30,000 consented to give 52% of the cut to the top 1% of Empiricans—must have a more obvious answer. I’ll try one: policymakers incessantly tell the lower and working classes that these policies will benefit them, and many of these folks believe what they’re told.
It goes without saying that the way in which politicians address the public affects public opinion. Our Emperor peppers his national addresses with Orwellian phrases like “working for the Empirican people” and “protecting the Empirican people,” not because he has an interest in doing either, but because he has to sell his policies to over 50% of the Empirican public. He’s walking a tightrope, you see, between the popular support essential to his efficacy and that of the tycoons who fund his campaigns. These two interests are at odds, which makes it a difficult balancing act. However, he keeps his balance by giving each party its due: he feeds the public reassuring words and gestures of patriotism, morality, steadfastness and hard work, and gives the tycoons their remittance in the form of deregulation, federal contracts and tax cuts.
On the Democratic side of the coin there is the rhetoric of care and unity. For instance, Barack Obama’s address at the 2004 Democratic Convention was based on the premise that we all have an overarching common interest (we’re all Empiricans) and should therefore transcend our differences. While this “one nation under God” patriotic platitude inspired and pacified some, it obscured a basic truth: for the past third of a century policymakers have served private, not public, interests, to the effect that we now live in a country divided by those who can afford political power and those who can’t.
Sure, words are influential. But deeds are factual. It is a fact that the lower and working classes of this country are not served by the legislators of this country. The aftermath of hurricane Katrina made this obnoxiously evident—it produced undeniable proof of a gross divide between those whom the laws serve and those whom they do not. Meanwhile, the political discourse is not going there. Conservatives talk about war and hard work; liberals talk about unity and care. The fact is, most Empiricans are warring for a lie, working for a pittance, uniting with the void, caring for soi-même and eating too many freedom fries.
So, to state the obvious and risk repetitiousness, the underprivileged simply have no legislative representation in this country. Neither Tweedle-Democrat nor Tweedle-Republican offers them a coherent advocacy. I’m not talking about “My daddy was a mill worker” speechifying, that hollow advertisement for the Empirican Dream, that false promise of prosperity, that vain self-exemplification intended to garner votes. Though some Empiricans do cast aspiration votes, most Empiricans do not rise from the working class to become rich trial lawyers or anything approximating rich.
In a democracy, politicians are people who barter popularity for power. If the rhetoric that makes them popular (in this case, that of God, morality, war, freedom, prosperity, unity, etc) fails to address the truth, it is largely the fault of a gullible populace. Not that people wouldn’t opt for the truth if it were “out there.” However, all they’re given is a distracting, cynical rhetoric urging support for policies that are in fact against their interests. As long as poor and working-class citizens have no leader with a language and course of action that respects the truth of the conditions in which they live, the answer to the question “Class war?” will continue to be “Not yet.”
© Copyright 2006, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.