On Paul Ryan, Class Warfare, and “The Moral Case for Capitalism”

This piece was originally published on In Our Words:

Last year—(probably right around the same time of the now widely-distributed Time magazine workout photo shoot)—Vice Presidential Republican candidate Paul Ryan told an interviewer for the conservative news site Human Events that, “we should not shy away from class warfare.”

During their discussion, the interviewer stated that the Democrat’s agenda is to “shake down the rich,” and asked Ryan if Republicans “are doing a successful job making the moral case for capitalism.”  “Not enough,” Ryan responded, then continued:

“We should not shy away from class warfare. We should take this head on, which is, the president is preying on the emotions of fear, envy and resentment, and he’s speaking to people in America as if they’re fixed in some class. That’s the European model. That’s the model our ancestors left to come create an opportunity society, equality of opportunity, equal protection of the law — not equality of outcome. Government’s role is not to equalize the results of our lives. And we should take that on in a moral way and defend the system of upward mobility.”

Of course, this is not a shocking quote to hear from a Republican. During the past few years, accusations of “class warfare” have been filling the media. Those on the Right tried to bring this concept into the lexicon as a way to scare the nation about the inevitable horrors of having a Democrat in the White House. The term caught fire not only in response to Obamacare, but also during the public worker labor dispute in Madison, WI (Ryan’s home state), and as a label for the efforts of Occupy Wall Street. For many conservatives, “class warfare” has become code for anything that remotely threatens the wealth of the super-rich.

My problem with this phenomenon is not about a distaste for the term “class warfare,” but rather that it’s far too generous a label to place upon any of the aforementioned examples. And, unfortunately, it’s a concept that would never be a goal of the Democratic Party. Class war implies some actual challenge to the status-quo, and Ryan misleadingly suggests that Obama is doing just that by fomenting the revolutionary spirit of the non-rich. (If only!)

No, class warfare is not alive and well in the Democratic Party because, Mr. Ryan, Barack Obama would go to the same lengths as you to make “the moral case for capitalism.” That Democrats are being painted as anti-capitalists is laughable—raising taxes and funding PBS does not a radical overhaul of the system make. And for Ryan to suggest that Obama is “speaking to people in America as if they’re fixed in some class,” couldn’t be farther from the truth. I spent a good chunk of my time in graduate school analyzing the use of the terms “working-class” vs. “middle-class” in the media and in political rhetoric, and let me assure you that the only time class is evoked by politicians is to say they want to make things better for the middle-class. This alone illustrates the exact opposite of Ryan’s claim, since inherent in “bettering the lives of middle-class people” is the implication of upward mobility and “The American Dream.” Democrats love that shit as much as you do, Paul Ryan, I promise. Don’t forget that Obama is the best real-life example of Horatio Alger we’ve ever had.

Historian Alan Berube discusses the danger in privileging the term “middle class” over “working class,” writing:

“‘middleclass’ is used as a code word for ordinary Americans…Middleclass is the neutral ground where there is no class warfare, no class division, no class struggle, no class consciousness….It instills within us both the desire and the language with which we can erase ourselves as anything other than middleclass.”

“The middle-class” is the target audience for both parties because this allows the very real class system to seem simultaneously both natural and innocuous. Everyone from fast food workers to doctors consider themselves part of the middle class, and in the current political climate, the middle class should be feeling pretty good because everyone in the government seems to have their back.

Out of curiosity, I did a word find for the word “class” in the transcript from the VP debate. Every hit I found referred to “middle class” Americans, and both Biden and Ryan were espousing their faith in and commitment to this apparently ubiquitous group of people.

Neither side talks about the working-class, and the term “poverty” is rarely uttered. If Paul Ryan’s accusation that Obama was fueling a class war was correct, I believe we’d be hearing a lot more of those terms propagated by the Dems. Instead, the myth of the classless society is perpetuated through “middle-class” oversaturation, a term that now feels almost void of meaning.

Now, I don’t want to end this with on a totally cynical note. I don’t think the mainstream Right and Left are exactly the same, and I do plan to vote for Obama, whose administration I believe will make better choices than Romney’s. But I think it’s important for us to remember that “the moral case for capitalism” is presented by both the Democrats and Republicans on a daily basis. The immoral case for capitalism is lived by people across the globe on the daily basis. And if Ryan wants to champion “upward mobility,” he need look no further for support than his friends across the isle.

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