By Jeffrey Scheuer

The Dallas Morning News, Sept. 18, 2000

It didn’t take George W. Bush long to trot out the accusation that Al Gore is indulging in “class warfare.” The note was first sounded on August 18th in a speech by Gov. Bush in Bartlett, Tennessee. Doubtless it will sound again.

It’s a rhetorical move that Democrats should vigorously rebut ­ not because it’s false, but because it’s true. What cheapens public discourse is the implication that class warfare is bad, that only Democrats engage in it, and that they should stop at once.

We don’t like to talk openly about class in America, for several reasons: a misplaced civility that finds the c-word divisive; a fear on the right of class awareness, with its socialist overtones. But most of all, there’s the American dream, or delusion: we shouldn’t attack Donald Trump because secretly, most of us want to be Donald Trump. The rich are given a lot of slack because they embody our fantasies of possibility, not just excess.

Nevertheless, if you take class differences out of politics, there’s very little left. We might still differ over gun control, gay rights, or separation of church and state; but democratic politics is largely the peaceful resolution of competing economic interests: the division of wealth, power, opportunity, and dignity. That’s what makes it politics, and not the Olympic trials or the Grammy Awards or the SAT’s.

When we choose, as a nation, between defense spending and Head Start, or between tax breaks for the wealthy and for the middle class, aren’t those class issues? If the ratio of a CEO’s salary to that of a blue-collar worker is 11:1 in Japan, and nearly 500:1 in the U.S., is it “class warfare” to talk about it? And what isn’t class-related about debates over the minimum wage?

Tax policy, health care, education, jobs, the environment, welfare reform, prescription drugs for the elderly, how to use the budget surplus­all affect the haves differently from the have-nots and the have-somes. Repealing the estate tax, as Republicans propose, is class warfare of a breathtaking kind, a gigantic subsidy for millionaires.

But looking beyond such egregious welfare for the wealthy, there are two coherent and dignified views on class that broadly frame American debate. One calls for simple equal opportunity, and let the chips fall where they may. We could call this “compassionate conservatism,” a phrase that’s available at the moment.

The other view ­ the liberal one ­ is that opportunity must be construed more broadly. We need more quality ­ and equality in education, for example, and at least some types of affirmative action, because simple legal equality doesn’t overcome historical and intergenerational inequities. “The law, in its majestic equality,” wrote Anatole France, “forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

This American Dream is not of a Lexus in every garage, but a nation where no one is left out. If the right just wants to protect the “haves,” and leave the gates of opportunity open, the left would enable “have-nots” to become “have-somes.” Our last liberal president, Lyndon Johnson, summed it up precisely: “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through the gates.”

It’s silly to pretend that democracy is not an argument between these two dignified perspectives on freedom, equality, and opportunity. We need to debate how far we should go to ensure class mobility, and whether to simply open those gates or help people to get to them. These questions loom beneath virtually every important policy discussion. If we ignore them, they don’t go away; instead, they are addressed in ways that diminish our democratic conversation: through political shadow-boxing, sublimation, code words, evasions, and demagogy.

It’s no accident that, despite pronouncements that the spectrum defunct, the left and right remain coherent alternatives in America and elsewhere. We continue to differ systematically, not about baseball or the weather, but about core issues of class. Capitalism and democracy jointly ensure that we have different interests and ways of expressing them politically. So let’s get over the lame idea of “class warfare.” George W. Bush and Al Gore should preface their debates this fall by forthrightly embracing their respective views of class ­ each with its flaws, dilemmas, and respectable antecedents ­ and entrust the American people to make the right choice.  

Jeffrey Scheuer is the author of The Sound Bite Society: Television and the American Mind (NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999).