Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, is horrified that President Obama has become the “world’s best salesman of socialism.” He grimly argues that conservatives will have to "take to the streets to stop America’s slide into socialism." And if that is not alarming enough, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has shrilly declared that the president's policies would be loved by “Lenin and Stalin.”
Perhaps most sickening of all, Fox News’ Glenn Beck dedicated one of his shows last week to “war gaming," the coming civil war against Obama-led tyranny.
What has the right so fired up?
Taxes! The dismantling of the Reagan-era thinking and policies that have sustained them as a movement for more than a generation!
They lost—to a black man!
Obama’s budget, according to the New York Times, “sharply raise(s) taxes on the rich, beyond where Bill Clinton had raised them. It would reduce taxes for everyone else, to a lower point than they would under either Mr. Clinton or George W. Bush.”
This gives them an easy rallying point, but their concerns run deeper. “More specifically,” the Times continues, “not only are taxes being (modestly) raised for those who make more than $250,000 per year, Bush’s capital gains tax break (which mainly benefits the rich) would be allowed to expire, and super-rich managers of private-equity funds, as well as managers of hedge funds and many other investment partnerships [would no longer be] taxed at rates lower than their chauffeurs and nannies.”
Obama’s attempt to have the rich bear a larger—and fairer—share of the tax burden is being labeled “class war” by many on the right and a few so-called moderates. In a sense, they are right; this is old-fashioned, socially democratic, redistributive politics—which in the U.S. is mistaken for class warfare. This type of politics used to be the central feature of the Democratic Party’s political economy from the days of the New Deal to those of the Great Society. Thirty-plus years of conservative Republican and Democratic presidents have led to a national memory loss about what a progressive economic program—one that benefits the vast majority of citizens—looks like.
In a deeper, more profound sense, however, the right’s shrill complaints about the advent of class war are deeply hypocritical. In the 1980s, some conservative elites were more honest about the dynamics of “class war.” I had a brilliant conservative colleague in graduate school who once remarked that both British Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were waging class war, but that Thatcher had won her battles while Reagan had not yet been fully victorious.
What this era’s American conservatives are refusing to acknowledge is that for eight years Bush led a looting of the American treasury through tax policies, Iraq war contracts and the deregulation of financial institutions that further enriched the wealthiest families and favored corporations, the result of which is a horrific national debt and a global economy in shambles. That was class warfare, and we saw economic inequality rise to astounding new levels under this regime. The right has been waging the most vicious class war for a generation. Their problem, to quote Malcolm X, is that the chickens have come home to roost. Obama is no more a socialist than was FDR. Like Roosevelt, he views it as his mission to save capitalism, despite its richest elites. That task requires both more regulation and a quick correction of some of the worse economic injustices of the past 30 years of conservative rule.
But the right is refusing to go quietly. They are embarked on a smear campaign to discredit and destroy the new Democratic president. At the CPAC conference last week, Obama was subjected to vicious attack. Not only did we hear that Obama was not an American and therefore an illegitimate president (a claim that Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby was caught endorsing back in his state), but allegedly sober and responsible Republican leaders were not only calling Obama a socialist but were comparing his policies to those of Lenin and Stalin. Conservative leaders are urging their supporters to take to the streets, to “build a civil rights movement” to take the country back—as if it was being occupied by a foreign power.
The racial slurs are still pervasive at the local level as well. The mayor of Los Alamitos, California had to resign after he was exposed circulating a cartoon of the White House where the lawn had been overrun with watermelons. In an environment where a segment of the nation’s political elite are openly questioning the very legitimacy of this president and/or comparing him to some of the nation’s worst enemies of the 20th century, it is not surprising that the editors of the New York Post could publish an editorial cartoon that depicted the president’s policies as being authored by a vicious chimp.
The attacks of the right will intensify in volume over the next several months, and it is very possible that we will start seeing a conservative mass movement hit the streets suggested by Beck in his “war game” scenarios.
Corporate warriors from many sectors, not just the health care industry, are lining up to run a massive disinformation campaign to subvert President Obama’s policy initiatives. The scope of the effort is likely to exceed the campaign that successfully targeted the Clinton health care plan in 1993.
Progressives, we cannot relax now or confine to critiquing aspects of the president’s policy that we find problematic. We must combat attempts by the right to monopolize the public discourse.
We must win the coming “class war.”
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.