The class act

January 13, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I'm delighted that our commander in chief is warning the country to be wary of warmongers. It isn't what I expect from George W. Bush at this moment in time, but so it goes.

The problem is that the president is talking about domestic warfare, not international. He wants the role as peacemaker for civilian hostilities, not military.

The war games began even before he announced the $674 billion tax cut package. In a pre-emptive strike, he said that his opponents - those folks who think a tax break for the rich is, um, a tax break for the rich - would foment "class warfare."

Democrats then insisted that the president was the one who started it. Soon every kid in the political playground was accusing another of aggression and declaring their own pacifism.

There's something remarkable in the class-conflict consciousness. Class has become a dirty word in America unless it's "middle class" - a shrinking category in which most Americans swear they belong.

Through thick and thin, boom and bust, we tenaciously hold on to the belief that we are, fundamentally, a classless society. This self-image survives even though we have the most unequal distribution of wealth in the Western world. It survives even though 1 percent of us own 40 percent of the wealth. And even though there's less income mobility between generations in our country than in any other but South Africa and Great Britain.

Talk of class warfare wasn't always politically incorrect. During the last robber-baron era, Teddy Roosevelt spoke about the "malefactors of great wealth." Populists preached against "plutocrats," a moniker that doesn't trip off our lips a century later.

But we rarely hear anyone talk about the "ruling class" anymore. Al Gore may have talked about the "people vs. the powerful." John Edwards now promises to be a "champion for regular people" against, presumably, irregular people. But Mr. Bush is considered to be a regular guy just for having a hamburger in Crawford, Texas. The only class he wants to talk about is the "investor class."

If politicians dodge charges of class warfare, Ralph Nader figures that it's because most citizens align themselves with the "haves."

"So they see the class warfare coming against them," he says.

Never, he says, underestimate the power of television to sell the story of the poor guy who becomes a basketball star, the winner who takes all. When voters were asked where they belong on the income pecking scale, 19 percent said they were in the top 1 percent of income earners. Another 20 percent said they expected to be there.

And did you wonder about the popularity of repealing the estate tax? Thirty percent of Americans think they'd have to pay death taxes, even though only 2 percent of estates fall in the taxable range.

The Bush administration figures that the couple earning $40,000 who get a $1,333 tax cut won't begrudge a $10,244 tax cut to the couple earning $500,000. More to the point, they won't figure what they'll lose in federal programs. As for the folks too poor to pay taxes? These are, after all, the Americans that The Wall Street Journal called "lucky duckies."

Americans like thinking of "us," not "us and them." They believe in equality. They reject class and privilege. As Benjamin DeMott says, that would be fine if equality were a guiding principle, something that required renewed commitment in every generation. But it's a scam if we think it's reality, a fanciful self-portrait that can't be criticized.

George W. describes himself as an opponent of class warfare. Well, of course he is. This plan would keep every, um, plutocrat in place. It's not peace at any price. It's peace at his price.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Monday and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at

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