Tuesday evening, hours before very narrowly winning the Iowa caucus, Mitt Romney said that President Obama’s policies would “substitute envy for ambition and poison the American spirit by pitting one American against another and engaging in class warfare.”
This new darling trope of conservatives—the idea of class warfare broadly, and against the rich, specifically—is a little bit completely infuriating. Fox News has used the term again and again to describe any attempt to bring attention to the inequality in this country. It is, apparently, “class warfare” to point out that the concentration of wealth in this country is held by a very, very small minority of people. I’m sorry, but the class warfare is not in discussing the inequality, but the fact that such extreme inequality exists in the first place. Traditionally, class warfare is understood not to be the practice of criticizing the rich, but the damage to people done by poverty. It’s a war with fronts in the workplace (where people face unsafe working conditions, coercion, or union busting), the grocery store (where people can’t afford sufficient food for their families, or must face the stigma and judgment that comes with using benefits), the schools, the judicial system, or nearly any other institution. It’s practically farcical that the media, controlled by a select few members of the most privileged echelon of society, can co-opt the language of class conflict first developed by Marx and Weber to describe merely drawing attention to inequality.
The bigger farce, though, is Mitt Romney—the richest candidate in a decade, and the richest plausible candidate in far longer—claiming the President’s policies are class warfare. It’s almost as laughable as Romney referring to Newt Gingrich as “a wealthy man… not a middle-class American” as a criticism. Sure, Newt isn’t a middle-class American. None of the candidates are. But, you know what Mitt? You have $250 million dollars. You’re not even the middle of the top one percent.
This is the thing, though: I think it’s okay that you’re rich, Mitt. I believe it is possible for wealthy leaders to lead well, provided they listen to their constituents and recognize their privilege. Except for a string of presidents elected during the nineteenth century’s burst of populism, all our leaders have been really rich. This is a problem, to be sure, but it’s been around for hundreds of years. Fixing it will require a serious overhaul of our class-based institutions, including the campaign finance system and that whole corporations-are-people and money-is-free-speech thing.
The bigger problem, I think, is for someone with as much money as you, Mitt, to stand up there and talk about your political opponent as being very wealthy without acknowledging your own wealth. And I think it’s downright absurd for you to stand up there and talk about class warfare as if you haven’t reaped the extraordinary benefits of class privilege in our country.