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The art of "class warfare"

How one phrase has become a key battleground in economic policy debates
By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
January 15, 2003

As tax cuts have taken center stage recently, so has a term that has become inextricable from any argument over economic policy in the past few years: "class warfare." Republican politicians and their supporters in the media have used "class warfare" to frame Democrats as divisive opponents of the wealthy who want to turn one class against another, while Democrats use it to frame Republicans as friends of the rich and powerful whose economic policies offer little help to the middle class and working families. Winning the war over this term has become a key component of the struggle to secure public support in the new budget battle. Indeed, the phrase is a perfect example of how Washington political battles can focus on defining the terms of debate rather than the policy itself.

The current debate

President Bush injected "class warfare" into the debate over his new tax cut proposal even before he presented the plan last Tuesday. Talking to reporters at his Texas ranch on January 2, Bush said, "I understand the politics of economic stimulus -- that some people would like to turn this into class warfare."

Such declarations are clearly part of the White House strategy to promote the tax cut proposal. In a briefing just hours before Bush's speech unveiling the proposal, Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said, "The President does not believe in dividing the American people and playing class warfare" in response to a technical question.

Other conservatives have made similar attempts to define criticism of the plan as "class warfare." "This package would provide 23 million small business owners with an average tax cut of $2,042. No amount of class warfare can convince Main Street that that's a bad thing," was the contribution of National Federation of Independent Businesses President Jack Faris. Stephen Moore of the conservative Club for Growth went even further: "Let the class warfare Democrats embrace small and impotent policy changes -- changes that increasingly sophisticated investor class voters will immediately identify as fraudulent."

Democrats, meanwhile, responded by trying aggressively to reclaim the phrase for their own political purposes. "Class warfare? [President Bush] declared the war," former Democratic governor of New York Mario Cuomo stated. "He said, 'We're going to give all the money to the rich.'" Former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean observed, "Clearly it is the Republicans practicing class warfare because [Bush's proposal] is for one class of people and it is not us." Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY, added, "Never in a time of war have we reduced the tax burden on the most privileged. At the same time..., we send a disproportionate number of lower- and middle-class kids to fight a war. If this is class warfare, I ask who started it?"

Just as notably, at least one major reporter has begun to use the phrase in supposedly objective reporting. Describing the use of the term "regular people" by Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Edwards, D-NC, Washington Post reporter Dan Balz stated, "Edwards's fanfare for the regular person prompts plenty of questions. Is it not-so-thinly disguised class warfare?" And on CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, as Bob Somerby pointed out, host Bob Schieffer used the phrase in a question to Sen. John Breaux, D-LA, framing it as an accepted term to describe Democratic rhetoric: "Senator Breaux, one of the sort of what's become Democratic mantra is this class warfare. Do you think this is class warfare that's going on here?"

The rise of a term

While it is currently Democrats who are trying to reclaim a phrase being used effectively against them, that hasn't always been the case. "Class warfare" first entered the political lexicon primarily as an attack by liberals against conservatives. Until the 2000 presidential election, however, it was utilized infrequently and didn't have nearly as much rhetorical power as it does today -- it is conservatives who have turned "class warfare" into an effective political tool by flipping it back against its originators.

To see just how much more frequently this phrase is used in today's political debates compared to those of the past, consider the number of results from a search on the Nexis news database for "class warfare" plus the word "tax" and the name of the Democratic candidate in each of the past five presidential elections, from June 1 to November 15 of the election year (not all publications are fully archived back to 1984 in Nexis and thus these figures are only a rough illustration of a trend):

1984: 1
1988: 12
1992: 59
1996: 144
2000: 889

During the June-November period in 1984, it appears not to have been a part of the American debate at all, showing up only once in an article in The Guardian, a left-liberal British newspaper. In 1988, though, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis started to use the phrase, mentioning the "class warfare that will delineate this fall's political combat." It was also picked up by some reporters, indicating it had begun to have some resonance. "At that point, Dukakis did a class-warfare number on Bush in good Truman style," observed Robert Healy in the Boston Globe. And James Baker, Chairman of the Bush/Quayle election campaign, noted that Democrats were beginning to use "class warfare" as part of the political attacks. "It was only after that showing," he said in a press briefing, "that our opponents really turned to what we perceived to be a more desperate strategy, a strategy aptly termed 'class warfare' by one of their own strategists."

By 1992, Republicans had picked up the phrase and begun to use it for their own purposes. President George H. W. Bush used it occasionally in speeches to attack Clinton's economic policies. "Candidate Clinton is playing the old games that liberals love to play, class warfare, divide Americans rich from poor, one group from another," he said in a campaign speech. And in perhaps the most notable attempt by a conservative to use the phrase aggressively against a Democratic candidate, Donald Lambro of the Washington Times wrote a commentary piece attacking President Clinton entitled, "Playing politics of class warfare." In that essay, Lambro began to draw the rhetorical lines that are still used by Republican politicians and conservative commentators today: "You couldn't invent two more sharply contrasting visions of America: one narrowly based on division and class warfare and disincentives to success, and the other rooted in expanding opportunity, entrepreneurial capitalism and the creation of new enterprises and wealth."

It must also be noted that the 1992 campaign was a key turning point as far as injecting "class warfare" into non-election budget debates. The term came up frequently during the battle over President Clinton's first budget plan in 1993. Republicans accused Democrats of engaging in "class warfare" when they supported the budget on the grounds that its tax increases primarily targeted the wealthy. That trend continued into President Bush's first budget proposal in 2001. The term was used even more frequently then, primarily in the same way it is being deployed in the current debate over President Bush's new tax cut plan.

In the 1996 campaign, Republican candidates Bob Dole and Jack Kemp were using the phrase more frequently than Bush Sr. had, repeating it regularly on the campaign trail. Kemp spoke at one point of "liberal Democrats practicing the politics of envy or, if not class warfare, the politics of division" and said at another time, "This class warfare must stop." Dole made similar accusations, stating "Now, who is going to decide who doesn't need the tax cut? [Clinton's] going to say, 'The rich don't need it.' My view is that's class warfare" and "the administration's waged a class warfare campaign."

Still, Dole and Kemp's use of the phrase paled in comparison to 2000 when, due in part to Al Gore's "people versus the powerful" formulation, "class warfare" turned up in Lexis-Nexis over six times more than it did in 1996, primarily wielded by Republicans. "I've heard all the talk about rich people versus poor people. That's class warfare that Mr. Gore likes to put onto people," George W. Bush said at one campaign stop, while at another, he stated, "I understand the politics of class warfare. My opponent tries to pit one group of people against another." Asked another time about accusations his tax cut plan favored the wealthy, Bush responded, "It's the kind of language that pits one group of people against another. It's called class warfare. That's the kind of language that will make it hard to get something done in Washington, D.C. America doesn't want class warfare."

Vice President Gore tried to appropriate the phrase on occasion as well. Describing Bush's economic proposal at one point, he stated, "What he is actually proposing is a massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest few. It is in fact a form of class warfare on behalf of billionaires."

Still, the most notable development of the 2000 campaign was how systematically the Bush campaign and its supporters turned "class warfare" into their own attack phrase. Consider this statement by Bush campaign manager Karl Rove in an appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press," where he used it three times in a single response to a question:

Al Gore launched out, talking about populism, about class warfare, about powerful forces that were supposedly keeping us from making progress. I think this return to populism, this return to class warfare is a sign of the lack of a positive agenda by Gore. The Gore campaign understands it doesn't have an agenda that makes it attractive. So rather than relying upon a positive agenda, they're going to rely on a divisive class warfare tone. And that's not helpful.

A proxy for policy

Apparently confident that "class warfare" is a powerful tool in their rhetorical arsenal, Republicans have been using the phrase frequently during the current debate. But Democrats seem well aware of how powerful the term has become and are launching a major effort to reclaim the term they thrust into the political vocabulary, turning it back against Republicans. Regardless of who wins the current debate, what's most notable about the rise of the term "class warfare" is how one phrase has become so central to economic debate in American politics, simplifying complex issues concerning tax and spending priorities into a back-and-forth over the meaning of just two words.

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