Now the Republicans, you know, when I talked about this earlier in the week, they said, well, this is class warfare. You know what? If asking a billionaire to pay their fair share of taxes, to pay the same tax rate as plumber or teacher is class warfare, then you know what? I'm a warrior for the middle class. I'm happy to fight for the middle class. I'm happy to fight for working people, ‘cause the only warfare I've seen is the battle that's been waged against the middle class over the last 10, 15 years." - President Barack Obama, September 22, 2011
The war against the middle class has been a relatively silent one until now. For decades, certain corporate interests and their influence peddlers in Washington (both lobbyists and politicians alike) have orchestrated a stealth ambush targeted at the core of American society. By and large, outside of high-information circles, the legislative actions that filled their coffers at the expense of middle class wallets went largely undetected by most Americans. Yes, occasionally, an item about the fleecing of the middle class would make the evening news -- a story about a single bullet while a legion of policy missiles were launched behind closed doors.
As most view it, conventional warfare requires both sides on the same battlefield. Perhaps not lined up with sword and shield ready for a cinematic rush to battle, but generally, conceptually, a decades-long war presupposes that both sides are aware that they're engaged in the act.
Yet for those decades, as the idea of a self-sustaining single-income household decayed away into a two- or three-income household barely able to makes ends meet, the middle class has stood on the edge of the battle with its back to the field, unaware of the plotting behind it and unprepared to deal with the consequences of that strategic ignorance. We were, after all, preoccupied with the soul-nibbling banalities of life. Morning coffee. Work. Lunch. Home. Dinner. Netflix. Sleep. Rinse. Repeat.
As mega-rich campaign contributors called on payback in D.C. and as their lobbyists drafted bills to lessen regulation of Wall Street, add more loopholes to the tax code, erode consumer protections and prevent any meaningful increase in the minimum wage, the middle class kept its back turned and its head down, save for peeking up now and again to look at the American Dream on the horizon. We squinted. Did it really look smaller, more distant, this time around? Activists and progressive groups shouted about income equality and the shrinking middle class from the rooftops, but most Americans were too busy keeping that roof over their heads to hear the muffled screams from above.
This is how the slow motion ambush of our families has taken place. Americans did not see the attack, but the middle class soon began to feel its effects. The nation felt "off track." Elections gave a fleeting sense of hope as we shuffled our way to our polling place and checked the box for individuals who were supposed to have our backs.
Unbeknownst to us, we were not electing lookouts who would signal when the American Dream was under attack. We were electing co-conspirators. On both sides of the aisle, though with the balance tilted heavily to the right, politicians preached solidarity for the common man during the campaign and then solidified their relationships with the uncommon man (that top 2%) on the floor of Congress.
The policies they churned out dovetailed perfectly with the efforts to crush the middle class in the private sector. Paul Krugman explains the result:
Detailed estimates from the Congressional Budget Office — which only go up to 2005, but the basic picture surely hasn’t changed — show that between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted income of families in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. That’s growth, but it’s slow, especially compared with the 100 percent rise in median income over a generation after World War II.
Meanwhile, over the same period, the income of the very rich, the top 100th of 1 percent of the income distribution, rose by 480 percent. No, that isn’t a misprint. In 2005 dollars, the average annual income of that group rose from $4.2 million to $24.3 million.
So do the wealthy look to you like the victims of class warfare?
For some of those wealthy, the spoils of their victory over the middle class is a bitter tasting fruit. Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) complained that after making $6 million in net business income, and after "feeding his family," he has "only" $400,00 left over. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), who in 2009 had an estimated networth of $31 million, recently told an audience he was "cash poor" and "struggling." And of course, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, whose net worth is pegged between $150 million to $250 million, "set his net worth aside and declared himself a member of 'the great middle class'" last week.
I suppose impersonating the enemy is good campaign fodder for those who do not want to be labeled part of the problem. It's always better to be campaigning as part of the middle class than a user or abuser or it.
This campaign season, the conventional dynamic has arguably changed. The financial crisis, the behavior of corporate politicians in Washington and stubborn unemployment have caught the attention of the middle class. The Tea Party was the first startled awakening. Though the movement's origins were not organic, the campaign was a successful jolt to the middle class. The flame of anger lit by the right, though misguided in its target, serve to light the entire battlefield. People turned their heads. Their ears perked up. Their eyes began to read about what was happening on Wall Street, Main Street, and D.C.
In short, the middle class awoke to find itself under attack.
Now ends the asymmetrical warfare. Now the real battle for middle class survival begins.
President Obama's new aggressive tone and his pledge to be a "warrior for the middle class" reflect a changed dynamic. Politicians are finally realizing that true populism yields better policy and better political results. Whether they take to the bully pulpit for more votes or for real action, at the very least, they've decided to step on to the battlefield.
The conflict between a segment of our society that desires to hoard our nation's wealth at the expense of the majority and a majority that seeks to breathe life again into the American Dream will not reach a conclusion in a single election cycle. No single president or single session of Congress can undue the injuries sustained by the middle class over the last decades.
But realizing that we're in a battle is a positive first step. The true test of our resolve will be holding our politicians accountable until their actions match their words. Because only when those we send to Washington begin acting like warriors for the middle class, only when the concept of "middle class warrior" becomes less a campaign slogan and more a commanding ethos, only then will we be able to see victory (and a second chance) for the middle class on the horizon.
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