For the last several months it’s been showing up in Facebook comments and Boehner aides, but you almost never heard it from an actual congressman’s actual mouth until this weekend: class warfare. That’s what the Republican Party is calling Obama’s new jobs/deficit plan, with terrifying synchronization. “Class warfare may make for really good politics, but it makes for rotten economics,” Paul Ryan said on Fox News this weekend. “We don’t need a system that seeks to prey on people’s fear, envy and anxiety.” You can tell the GOP is scared about this, because Paul Ryan is talking. He’s the guy they get to tell the American people stuff we won’t want to hear, and they picked him the same way a carload of drunk frat boys decides who’s going to go knock on the door after they run over a dog. He’s handsome, at least by GOP standards. That’s good, because in this analogy, about 65% of America is the dog.
The occasion for Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham all saying “class warfare” on TV the same weekend is Obama’s jobs plan, rapidly merging with his deficit plan. Both are significantly funded by closing loopholes in corporate and personal income tax law, letting the Bush cuts expire, and implementing the so-called Buffett Rule. That last one—in addition to being the first instance of successful branding in maybe the entire Obama presidency—is the one that’s got Republicans really fired up. It’s named for this op-ed by Warren Buffett, in which he points out that his secretary is taxed at a higher rate than he is. The Buffett Rule proposes to remedy this by levying higher tax rates on investments and personal income in excess of $1 million a year.
If you read Buffett’s editorial, you probably noticed that it makes a strong connection between our elected officials and, as Buffett calls them, “my mega-rich friends.” In Buffett’s language, the subject-object relationship between millionaires and politicians is much closer than the mediated interplay between taxes and “job creators” that animates Republican rhetoric. “Our leaders have asked for ‘shared sacrifice,'” Buffett begins. “But when they did the asking, they spared me.” The Republican Party has staked out an absolute, ten-to-one opposition to tax increases. It so happens, though, that the only tax increases anyone is proposing right now are on millionaires. This puts the GOP in a tough position, since even as they sound the alarm over deficits, they go to the mat for the summer-house crowd over and over again. The rate at which those wealthiest Americans pay taxes is currently at a historic low, so the Republican Party’s ideological refusal to raise taxes is, at this moment, a practical refusal to tax the rich.
Meanwhile, they would maybe consider the idea of raising the rate on people who are currently too poor to qualify for income tax. Again, there are articulated theoretical reasons for doing that, but that pure ideology is functionally indistinguishable from filibustering unemployment benefits and budget packages in loyal defense of the nation’s millionaires. The Democrats have unions, gays, the urban poor and tree huggers, and they will fight with varying enthusiasm to protect them. The Republicans have “business owners,” recently “job creators” or—to be more obvious—rich people. Along with various species of bigot, that’s their constituency.
Again, it’s an ideological partnership. But with the economy renewing its third lease in the toilet, unemployment near ten percent and the federal deficit approaching a crisis level, the GOP’s insistence that we consider every solution but raising the tax rate on millionaires above its 60-year low sounds more and more crass. The income gap between the wealthiest 1% of Americans and everyone else tripled in the last three decades. That’s a class war, right there, and it’s pretty clear who’s winning.
A good way to spot the liar in your day-to-day life is to consider who most often thinks that other people are lying to him. The more you practice deception—or greed, or infidelity or sabotage—the more you detect opportunities for other people to do it to you. Perhaps the Republican Party has found class warfare in the President’s new proposals because, for the last thirty years, that is what politics has been for them. They’ve done it really well, and we’ve got the deficit and the income disparity and the finance/insurance/real-estate economy to prove it. Maybe the Buffett Rule is class warfare, but I don’t think so. “Class retaliation” might be the better phrase.