If you’ve heard the phrase “class war” in twenty-first-century America, the odds are that it’s been a curse spat from the mouths of Republican warriors castigating Democrats for engaging in high crimes and misdemeanors like trying to tax the rich. Back in 2011, for example, President Obama’s modest proposal of a “millionaire tax” was typically labeled “class warfare” and he was accused by Congressman Paul Ryan, among others, of heading down the “class warfare path.” Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney and other Republican presidential hopefuls blasted the president for encouraging “class warfare” by attacking entrepreneurial success. In the face of such charges, Democrats invariably go on the defensive, denying that they are in any way inciters of class warfare. In the meantime, unions and the poor are blasted by the same right-wing crew for having the devastatingly bad taste to act in a manner that supposedly might lead to such conflict.
In our own time, to adapt a classic line slightly, how the mighty have risen! And that story could be told in terms of the fate of the phrase “class war,” which deserves its Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart moment. After all, for at least a century, it was a commonplace in an all-American lexicon in which “class struggle,” “working class,” and “plutocrat” were typical everyday words and it was used not to indict those on the bottom but the rich of whatever gilded age we were passing into or out of. It was essentially purged from the national vocabulary in the economic good times (and rabidly anti-communist years) after World War II, only to resurface with the Republican resurgence of the 1980s as a way to dismiss anyone challenging those who controlled ever more of the wealth and power in America.
It was a phrase, that is, impounded by Republicans in the name of, and in the defense of, those who were already impounding so much else in American life. All you have to do is take a look at recent figures on income and wealth inequality, on where the money’s really going in this society, to recognize the truth of Warren Buffet’s famed comment: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Recently, Bill Moyers (who needs no introduction) gave a speech at the Brennan Center in New York City in which he laid out what class warfare really means in this society. The first appearance of the host of Moyers & Company at TomDispatch is a full-throated call to save what’s left of American democracy from — another of those banned words that should come back into use — the plutocrats.