History Lesson

Class-War Games

What Bush means when he accuses populist Gore of “class warfare.’ 

Last week, George W. Bush attacked Al Gore’s new populist rhetoric as “class warfare,” a label that Republicans love to sling at Democrats whenever their populistic appeals start to work. Bush’s father charged class warfare in defending President Ronald Reagan’s regressive tax cuts and Jack Kemp jousted similarly in 1996.

At first, Bush’s accusation sounded desperate. Raising the class-warfare boogeyman these days is as anachronistic as calling your opponent soft on communism. But upon reflection, I concluded Bush probably wasn’t being cynical. More likely, he was simultaneously revealing his true sentiments and how out of touch with most Americans he really is.

A member of the wealthy elite, Bush sees the world through millionaire’s glasses. He can’t fathom that voters—even those who deplore government overspending—enjoy hearing the vice president rail against HMOs, drug companies, and corporate polluters. Steeped in noblesse oblige, Bush must genuinely believe that assailing profiteers subverts the common good—or, as he put it, “pit[s] one group of people against another … to wage class warfare to get ahead.”

Where did the notion of class warfare come from? In Marxist jargon, the phrase refers to the battle by the oppressed workers in an industrial society to attain power. American history has seen some class-warfare advocates, from the coal-mining Molly Maguires of the 1870s to the Industrial Workers of the World of the 1910s. In times when violence seemed rampant or capitalism seemed imperiled—the Gilded Age or briefly during the Great Depression—the phrase could strike fear in bourgeois hearts.

Yet despite its Marxist origins, class warfare has served more often as a cudgel than as a rallying cry. Typically, well-to-do conservatives have hurled it at those who challenge inequities in the distribution of wealth, the regulation of business, or the justice system. Marxists will tell you that capitalists invoke class warfare whenever they need to scare the bourgeoisie or suppress the proletariat. But there’s a less conspiratorial view: People like Bush charge class warfare because they think the existing social structure is just dandy. History bears out this interpretation.

The early 19th century witnessed a transformation in American society. The old order of limited democracy and a negligible industrial sector was fading. During the 1820s and ‘30s, states adopted universal male suffrage, political parties blossomed, and urban-based manufacturing boomed. The rowdy, rough-hewn, and unpretentious President Andrew Jackson epitomized the new America of noisy politics, freewheeling enterprise, and men on the make.

The rise of industry intensified the discrepancies of wealth and opportunity. In the Jacksonian era, manufacturing took place mainly in artisans’ workshops, where master craftsmen—shoemakers or carpenters or tailors—oversaw small operations of journeymen assistants and young apprentices learning the trade. Once, the shop had been a place of camaraderie and cooperation among workmen of different ranks, widely considered “a benevolent hierarchy of skill,” as historian Sean Wilentz has written. But, as Wilentz showed in Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, that order rapidly changed.

In the new industrializing economy, shop owners distanced themselves from the physical labor of their trades. Their businesses expanded, they hired more unskilled workers, and they evolved into full-blown entrepreneurs. The workers, meanwhile, saw their opportunities increasingly limited. On a range of issues—from wages to control over their work to how they spent their leisure time—they found that their collective interests naturally diverged from that of the entrepreneurs. (Marx called this awareness “class consciousness.”)

To regain the freedom they were losing, workers turned to politics and trade unionism. In 1829, New York artisans founded the short-lived Workingmen’s Party to demand “a guaranty that reasonable toil shall enable [wage-earners] to live as comfortably as others.” In 1833, workers formed a General Trades Union, which proposed to combat “the undue accumulation and distribution of wealth … by unity of purpose, and concert of action, on the part of the producing classes.” Still others rallied to Jackson and the Democrats, who took up labor’s cause.

That different class interests now jostled with each other seemed undeniable. Soon, though, a counterargument arose from men of means. In earlier times, such men would have responded to uppity laborers with old-fashioned defenses of aristocracy and the moral rightness of a social hierarchy. But such naked conservatism, already made suspect by the Revolution, perished with the passing of the old Federalist Party in the1810s. Now entrepreneurs had to respond differently. 

Leaders of the Whig Party, the new opposition party to the Democrats, developed this claim: That America was uniquely without classes. Since some of these Whigs had themselves risen from modest origins, they genuinely believed America allowed everyone to prosper. The great Whig Sen. Daniel Webster said that while in Europe there existed a “clear and well defined line, between capital and labor … we have no such visible and broad distinction.” Whig preacher Calvin Colton wrote that “[e]very American laborer can stand up proudly and say, ‘I am the American Capitalist,’ which is not a metaphor but literal truth.”

The Whig businessmen weren’t just trying to counter the Democrats’ appeal to laborers. Central to the Whig worldview was the idea of “the organic unity of society.” Whigs posited a single national interest rather than the plethora of competing professional, social, religious, and regional interests recognized by the Democrats. Still, even if well-intentioned, Whig philosophy was inherently stifling to the lower classes’ ambitions. It implied that any talk of class interests could be waved off as mischief. From this Whig myth of a classless America emerged the argument that to acknowledge different class interests was to partake of baleful and disruptive “warfare.”

The Whig Party collapsed in 1854, but its image of a classless America endured. Theodore Roosevelt invoked it in assailing “the sinister or foolish socialist visionary who strives to arouse this feeling of class consciousness in our working people,” and Republicans brandished it whenever Franklin Roosevelt scapegoated the “unscrupulous money changers.”

But will the denial of class interests work today? We still suffer from class divisions: The richest 10 percent of the citizenry owns 71 percent of the wealth, and the average worker earns $26,000 a year while the average CEO takes in $12.4 million. But since the Depression the threat of honest-to-goodness, fear-inspiring class warfare has evaporated, and charges of class warfare have taken on a hollow, tinny ring. Most Americans have learned to distinguish revolutionaries from reformers. As a result, the Democrats—from FDR to LBJ to Bill Clinton—have actually fared very well when they’ve pitched economic appeals to the middle and lower classes. The reason is simple arithmetic. 

Ironically, the Republicans have also fared well when they’ve used class warfare of a different sort: attacks on the privileged liberal professionals sometimes known as the “new class.” In contrast to the Democrats, Republicans have typically won presidential races when they’ve shifted the campaign’s focus from economic equality to issues such as crime and welfare (as well as defense), where they command the populist ground and where Democrats are seen as an out-of-touch elite. The math here is equally straightforward.

In fact, the appropriation of such populist appeals constitutes another way in which today’s Republicans hearken back to the Whigs of yore. The Whigs won their first presidential race only when they shed their upper-class image and emulated Jackson’s populism. In 1840 they dressed down the aristocratic William Henry Harrison as the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate—the 19th-century equivalent of a Connecticut Yankee munching on pork rinds.

Generally, though, the Whigs were not terribly successful. They didn’t appreciate that in a society with disparities of wealth, income, and power, classes necessarily exist. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that people who inhabit different social strata will naturally have different interests, and if they’re politically organized, they’ll press for their interests to be represented. That, George W. Bush should realize, isn’t class warfare. It’s democracy.