I’ve noticed a trend in comments by some Obama supporters on several other websites lately: Bring it on!, they say.
What are they seeking? Class warfare. The accusation from many conservatives and Republicans that Obama’s actions and rhetoric are fomenting more acrimonious division between the working classes and the wealthy isn’t being resisted by many of these commenters. Instead, it is embraced.
The tone is of seething resentment coupled with triumphant revenge—they screwed me, now I’ll screw them, cause it’s payback time.
This will give a flavor of the sort of thing we’re talking about:
I love the smell…of class warfare in the morning. It smells like victory!
And this is one of the most extreme statements of the impulse:
I don’t want anybody tending bar unless they or their parents own it. I want even rich people to have to cook for and clean up after themselves. I want a minimum wage large enough to make the service economy unmanagable. I want people busy creating real wealth and getting to share in it. I want a social safety net, including universal health care, good anough that employers can’t keep worker hostage in dead end jobs that they hate at low pay just so they can go to the doctor if they get sick. I want the American dream as Lincoln defined it, where a man can apprentice, learn a skill, buy his own tools and eventually compete with his master. And since they’ve been robbing us for lifetimes now I want the owning class robbed rigth back to pay for it.
How does Obama figure into this? After all, he isn’t responsible for the bile of a bunch of angry commenters on some websites. And who knows how widespread this phenomenon is, anyway? But if my perceptions are any guide, it appears to be on the increase.
Whatever led these people to this peak of pique has probably been a long time coming. The feeling has been fed by decades of maceration in the idea that life is supposed to be fair and that fairness equals equality; that people are entitled to do well financially; that it’s a zero-sum game in which, if your neighbor is doing better than you are, then he/she is taking something away from you; that economic downturns are always the fault of the rich doing something underhanded and crooked; and that taking it out on the rich will benefit the rest of us. And, of course, there are the very real abuses that have been committed by some of the captains of industry and finance.
Obama’s speeches and policies stoke the fires of that anger, a fact of which I believe he is absolutely aware. In his recent speech to Congress he made the division crystal clear. Here are some quotes that illustrate this (my interpolations and comments are in brackets and in bold):
A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future [ forgetting the idea that the wealthy often invest that money in the future, in new businesses that employ people who are not rich and that help grow the economy for everyone)...People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway [ignoring the seminal role of liberals and Democrats in pushing these very loans on those banks and lenders]…
I will not send—I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can’t pay its workers, or the family that has saved and still can’t get a mortgage [fostering that perception of a division between the bad and the good, the guilty rich and the innocent poor]…
In order to save our children from a future of debt [a substantial part of which is the result of the stimulus bill Obama has championed and Congress passed, loaded with non-stimulating goodies for Democratic constintuencies] we will also end the tax breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Now, let me be clear—let me be absolutely clear, because I know you’ll end up hearing some of the same claims that rolling back these tax breaks means a massive tax increase on the American people: If your family earns less than $250,000 a year—a quarter million dollars a year—you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: Not one single dime. Not a dime. In fact, the recovery plan provides a tax cut—that’s right, a tax cut—for 95 percent of working families. And by the way, these checks are on the way. [There is great deal of emphasis on the division between the two groups here. The haves will finally be paying the have-nots and the have-lesses, and economic redistributive justice will be served.]…
I think of Leonard Abess, a bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus, and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him. He didn’t tell anyone, but when the local newspaper found out, he simply said, “I knew some of these people since I was seven years old. It didn’t feel right getting the money myself.” [The only good banker is a redistributive banker. Note that he gives the money to the people as a grant/largesse, rather than using it to start a new company or to employ them in jobs in some ongoing concern that will contribute more in the long run to growing the economy.]
These are not rabble-rousing sentiments. There’s no call to storm the Bastille, or to do away with royalty. But despite the lip service that Obama gives (towards the beginning of his speech) to pulling together, and to the importance of the entreprenurial imagination, it is clear that he is subtly equating the rich with an exploitative nobility whose actions do not benefit the nation, and who must be taken down a peg or two—or three or four or more. Those CEOs with their “fancy drapes” and private jets are the enemy, and Obama says their days of luxury are over. The idea that people work to get rich and enjoy the fruits of their labor, and that this is not a bad thing as long as they are not breaking laws and/or defrauding the stockholders, is nowhere to be heard.
Some of the angry commenters I quoted above sound a bit like the leaders of the French Revolution, whose slogan was “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, brotherhood). Here’s some pertinent historic perspective on how the idea of equality changed over time for the French. Initially, it was defined in a way similar to the way our founding fathers looked on it: equality of opportunity. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, it is described thusly:
[The law] must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.
But that changed in France rather soon:
This identification of liberty and equality became problematic during the Jacobin period, when equality was redefined (for instance by Babeuf) as equality of results, and not only judicial equality of rights. Thus, Baudot considered that French temperament inclined rather to equality than liberty, a theme which would be re-used by Roederer and Tocqueville, while Necker considered that an equal society could only be found on coercion.
And coercion there was, if you look at the Jacobin’s most dreadful project, the Reign of Terror. We’re not there yet, and I hope we never will be—our “temperament” seems (at least until now) to be inclined more to liberty, and to equality of opportunity rather than outcome. But there’s quite a bit of fulminating rage out there, and enough people who would probably applaud the public guillotining of a few CEOs.
Of course, anyone guilty of a crime should go to prison—I am as incensed as anyone at Bernard Madoff, for example, and hope that justice comes to him sooner rather than later. But making a lot of money is no crime, and no one should be hated for it—that would be the politics of envy rather than reason. Obama’s refusal to acknowledge the following—and to say it clearly and loudly when he is addressing the American people—is definitely part of the problem:
[W]ho are the people out there today with the cash—and confidence—to spend? Most often they are people and families with earnings ranked in the top echelons and who will be subject to the Obama tax hike.
If I were a rich man—or woman (Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum)—I wouldn’t feel encouraged by Obama to invest in a new business or grow the one I already had. I would also feel unfairly characterised as an automatic exploiter of others rather than a hard-working American doing my bit to better myself and to add wealth to the economy as a whole.
That’s not a feeling that’s going to foster our financial recovery, or our “pulling together.” It’s more like this:
“It’s increasingly beginning to look like we’ve all been invited to the dinner, but some of us are showing up as the main course and others are the invited guests,” said Martin Regalia, the chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has supported Obama’s economic recovery programs.
And cake is nowhere to be found on the menu.
[ADDENDUM: Larry Kudlow agrees that it's war.]