One of the distinguishing features of America from the founding throughout our history has been classlessness. In recent years, especially since 2009, there has been a relentless assault by the progressive left on what it considers the unfair income distribution between the rich and others, propounded particularly in academia as I discussed in Inequality. That blitzkrieg has contributed to a significant rise—by around 20 points—in the percentage of our population that now believes there is a sharp and intensifying class conflict in America, which some on the left would turn into class war.
Central to President Obama’s reelection strategy was his campaign’s devastatingly effective demonization of Governor Romney as the rich embodiment of a predatory capitalist economic system, as I described in Postmodernism and Governance. A Pew Research exit poll (Andrew Kohut, “Misreading Election 2012,” The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2012) found that while 10 percent of voters said that President Obama’s policies generally favored the rich, 53 percent said Mr. Romney’s policies favored the rich. An overwhelming 87 percent of those who saw Romney’s policies as oriented towards the rich voted for Obama. (Karl Rove, “The President’s ‘Grand Bet’ Pays Off,” The Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2012)
The view that our economic system unfairly favors the rich underlies the growing perception of class conflict. In my article Equality and Governance, I highlighted a finding of a March 2012 Pew Research poll that 61 percent of Americans believed that “the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy”; only 36 percent said “the economic system is generally fair to most Americans.” Exit polls of voters in the 2012 election by the National Election Pool, the consortium of the five networks and the Associated Press, produced an almost identical result: “Fifty-nine percent of voters said the economic system favors the rich and 39% said it is fair to all.” (Karlyn Bowman, “Election Results from A to Z,” The American, November 7, 2012)
Returning to class conflict, another Pew poll (“Rising Share of Americans See Conflict Between Rich and Poor,” January 11, 2012)—taken well before the 2012 presidential election campaigns—found that:
About two-thirds of the public (66%) believes there are ‘very strong’ or ‘strong’ conflicts between the rich and the poor, an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009. Not only have perceptions of class conflict grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. According to the new survey, three-in-ten Americans (30%) say there are “very strong conflicts” between rich people and poor people. That is double the proportion that offered a similar view in July 2009 and the largest share expressing this opinion since the question was first asked in 1987….
As a result, in the public’s evaluations of divisions within American society, conflicts between rich and poor now rank ahead of three other potential sources of group tension—between immigrants and the native born; between blacks and whites; and between young and old….The biggest increases in perceptions of class conflicts occurred among political liberals and Americans who say they are not affiliated with either major party. In each group the proportion who say there are major disagreements between rich and poor Americans increased by more than 20 percentage points since 2009….
Ironically, the Pew findings show that the sense of serious disagreement between the rich and the poor grew by 15 to 24 percent in virtual lock step across all categories: all income groups; young and old; women and men; whites and minorities; Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; and liberals, moderates, and conservatives.
The American academy has been a principal driver of the change since 2009 in the public’s perception of accelerating class conflict. Charlotte Allen has argued that “the sharp political focus on inequality, driven into the public mind by the Occupy movement and endorsed by President Obama…was born, not on the street, but on the campus.” (The ‘Inequality’ Movement—A Campus Product, Minding the Campus, March 21, 2012) She cites numerous university programs and courses that offer “Marxist and quasi-Marxist critiques of capitalism,” in which “the core presumption is that there is something inherently wrong with all inequality,” and that “inequality is somehow the fault of those who do better in society.”
Allen noted that nearly all of the university programs “promote scholarship whose origin is a single source: a 2003 article…by the French economist Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.” In the article, the authors argue that since the 1970s, the earnings of the top 1 percent of Americans “began to soar relative to median wages.” In Inequality, I pointed out that most of the income of the very rich comes from their corporate stock holdings, wealth which was generated by a capitalism unleashed after 1982, benefiting millions of less wealthy Americans as well.
In Exchange, I explained the general lack of understanding of our economic system and reported another of Allen’s findings about academia’s portrayal of the rich:
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that most recent college graduates learned everything they know about capitalism from Barbara Ehrenreich,” writes Charlotte Allen in “More Adam Smith, Please…and less Barbara Ehrenreich” in The Weekly Standard. Ehrenreich, a self-proclaimed socialist, makes the Marxist zero-sum argument that “people are poor because the rich systematically steal from them.”
The view of the rich also stems from what our children have been taught in public schools for now decades. In Marxist Justice, I noted that:
By the time most American students leave high school they have often been instructed in Marxist theory, social justice, anti-capitalism, and class envy against the rich by public education….
The high school textbook used by my granddaughter in 2008, United States History: In the Course of Human Events (1997),…laments that “all people had not shared equally in the blessings of industrial wealth,” adding that Richard T. Ely “rejected the idea that inequality of wealth was natural and inevitable. It could be explained by an analysis of banks, corporations, and other institutions that helped concentrate wealth in the hands of the few.”
A new multicultural egalitarian order became the aim of education, starting in the academy of the 1960s. Multiculturalism depicts the historical development of America as a narrative of conquest and subjugation of oppressed groups, which is “rooted in the work of Marxist historians and social scientists,” explained Peter Wood in Diversity (2003). Both public and higher education not only fail to teach the classlessness of our founding order, they actively instill class envy.
However, there is also real increased class separation in America because of a growing actual education gap between the wealthy upper class and the economically disadvantaged—to which both higher and secondary education have contributed. A study by Stanford University sociologist Sean A. Reardon found that
The gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students had grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, and is now double the testing gap between blacks and whites….We have moved from a society…in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race.
(Sabrina Tavernise, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say,” The New York Times, February 9, 2012)
At the low-income level, declining educational achievement is, in part, the result of cultural change—the demise of marriage and two-parent families, due in large measure to the influence of postmodern multiculturalism and gender feminism, as I discussed in Marriage and Family. Finally, higher education’s policy of diversity focused on elites from every race rather than more broadly on economic disadvantage has amplified the gap between rich and poor.
Unfortunately, the idea of sharper class antagonism in America is already being escalated by the progressive left—from class conflict to class war, the subject of next week’s article.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).