IT LOOKS as though a long-running Abbott and Costello routine in American politics may finally be coming to an end. I hope so.
You know the routine - it's about "class warfare." The Republicans push through laws that enrich the rich. The Democrats protest the injustice of such policies. The Republicans then accuse the Democrats of waging "class warfare" - which forces the Democrats into impotent silence, until the next round.
Watching over the years how effectively this rhetorical strategy has worked to shield our "them that has, gets" politics has filled me with the same feeling of frustrated rage that I felt as a boy when I saw a brilliant Abbott and Costello routine in one of their films.
In it, as I recall, the two men are stranded on a desert island with no food - until Costello finds a bag of beans. Abbott argues successfully that, as the two of them are buddies - share and share alike - the beans should be divided between them.
Abbott then eats all his beans, while Costello slowly makes ready to enjoy his small trove of food. But before he can take his first bite, Abbott protests: How can it be that he has nothing to eat while Costello has all those beans? Aren't they buddies? Shouldn't the beans be divided?
Costello senses something's wrong, but the appeal to this ideal of buddies sharing silences his misgivings. So the beans are divided again, and again Abbott eats his share while Costello again prepares to eat his, and again is interrupted by Abbott's outraged protestations. Aren't we buddies, share and share alike?
And so it goes until they're down to the last bean - Abbott having eaten all the others, and then challenging Costello for half the remaining bean. If I remember correctly, Costello ends up throwing his last remaining bean fragment away - still having eaten nothing - furious but bewildered.
I could hardly bear to watch this scene.
That same rage at palpable injustice has filled me at those times over the years when I've watched the success of the Republicans at waging class warfare - shifting the tax burden down the social ladder, dismantling social protections, removing obstacles that were erected to protect the public interest from the free play of mighty economic powers - and then clobbering anyone who protests with the charge that they are waging class warfare.
The equivalent in American politics to Abbott's ploy - "We're buddies, aren't we, in this together?"- is the notion that America is free of the politics of class, that we're perhaps even a classless society. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity where a fair game is played on a level playing field. Class warfare has been seen as part of the corruption of the Old World, while the land of the free has no use for the pinko politics or the resentments of the oppressed.
That's what gives the accusation that someone is waging class warfare such power in America: the deep-seated notion that calling attention to differences in class interests is un-American. We're buddies, aren't we?
Lately, however, there's been growing evidence this class warfare ploy is losing its long-standing power to intimidate. The evidence lies in who it is that brings the phrase class warfare into the political debate: Over the course of this year, for the first time, it's the liberals.
In previous years, among liberal columnists, the phrase class warfare simply did not appear. But lately, one finds it being used - often with irony - to call attention to the reality that much of the power now being wielded in Washington is indeed being used by one class to gain advantage over other classes.
Why now? My guess is that it's because in recent years the conservatives have simply overreached. Overreaching seems a tendency of the right in today's America.
Several years ago, its overreaching in an attempt to destroy President Bill Clinton ended up fortifying his public support. Now some of those same people are overreaching by so blatantly using their political power to aid the privileged in their class warfare against the middle and lower strata of American society.
And perhaps the effect of this blatancy is to enable those who protest these injustices to turn at last the rhetorical cannon of class warfare around and fire it in the other direction. On this Labor Day, that might be something worth celebrating.
Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer who teaches American studies at the Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico.