Politicians fighting class battle, but who will win war?
Published 31/01/2012 | 08:00
Given its centuries-old entrepreneurial self-image and its role as capitalism's main Cold War protagonist, it's hardly surprising that America's political discourse has long-eschewed any sustained debate about class. But the times they are a changin'.
From Main Street to Wall Street and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Americans are locked in an unprecedented national debate about class - which even includes, most strikingly, the historically taboo topic of class warfare.
The lion's share of the credit for this new reality belongs to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, whose persistent protests eventually forced the media and politicians to focus on America's rapidly growing wealth-gap between the super-rich and the rest.
With the economy still in the doldrums and 52% of the public disapproving of his job performance, it's been a no-brainer for Barack Obama to adopt OWS's 'soak-the-rich' mantra. Beating the 1%-vs-99% drum may be the only way he'll avoid cleaning out his Oval Office desk next January.
More surprising than Obama's rhetoric has been the contributions to the class warfare debate from the dwindling pack of Republican presidential wannabes.
Earlier this month, in a futile effort to keep his campaign alive by knocking down then-frontrunner Mitt Romney, Texas governor Rick Perry accused former venture capitalist Romney of practising "vulture capitalism" by utilising mass-layoff tactics in order to enrich himself and investors.
Perry soon bailed from the race and the task of tarring Romney as a callous capitalist speculator has been picked up by his current chief rival, Newt Gingrich. The former Georgia congressman has avoided the word 'vulture', but he has accused Romney's Bain Capital of being comprised of "rich people figuring out clever, legal ways to loot out a company" - regardless of the cost in jobs.
Gingrich is no Robin Hood. He just wants to be president. And if playing the class card is the only way to mortally wound Romney, then so be it. He also knows well that, with more than 20m Americans unemployed or underemployed at a time when Wall Street executives have been pulling down huge bonuses, class consciousness is rising in America.
The richest 1% hold 40% of America's wealth. And if ever there was a poster-boy for America's richest 1%, it's Mitt Romney.
After a year of foot-dragging, last week the former Massachusetts governor released his tax returns for 2010 and 2011. Having pocketed more than $42m, Romney was taxed at about 14% rate - far south of what most middle-class Americans pay and below the 25% rate that people in his income bracket usually pay. That is because the bulk of his money was from investments, which are taxed far lower than wages.
Add in the fact that Romney stashed some of his enormous wealth in the Cayman Islands and Swiss bank accounts and Gingrich's efforts to tar Romney as a privileged 'elite' seem easy.
But in this bastion of capitalism, highlighting wealth inequities is a matter of tactics, not principle.
Gingrich and Obama are united in one thing: exploiting growing class resentment is smart politics. Neither are flaming Lefties. But both hope to ride resentment of the super-rich to victory.
The question for both will be: can the genie of class-consciousness be put back in the bottle once it's awakened?