Bernie Sanders can give America what it needs: Some good old-fashioned class warfare

The democratic socialist from Vermont is well positioned to bring class back to the forefront of American politics

Published June 29, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has struck a nerve in the heart of America. Throughout the country, the Vermont Senator has been drawing enormous crowds, equal to that of Hillary, while also gaining in the polls and prompting Clinton to muster up her best Elizabeth Warren impression. It is clear that Sanders’ populist message, which addresses economic inequality and Wall Street corruption, is resonating with the American people. But what's most important about the rise of Bernie Sanders, whether you believe he is a true populist or a cog in the Democratic machine, is that he (and other progressives like Warren) is bringing back what has long been stomped out in America: class politics.

Well, thats not entirely true. Class politics never really went away, there was simply a shift in aggression. Since the '70s, the ruling class has gone on the offensive, while the middle and lower classes have been brought to their knees. Of course, when the lower classes go on the attack, its class warfare; but when the ruling class does it, it’s reform. (At least this is what has been hammered into the minds of so many Americans over the past 40 or so years.)

Just think of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform and his promise to “end welfare as we know it.” The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act was signed into law in 1996, and was a culmination of over 20 years of ruling-class propaganda. Politicians, pundits, and the media managed to create a nasty picture of the poor leaching off of everyone else in America, while popular terms like “welfare queen” were added to the lexicon. But what was particularly clever about this attack on the underclass was how it became as much about race as it was about class. This was not an accident. Since the Civil Rights era, racial prejudices have been used to divide the lower classes, dismantling of the New Deal coalition -- which had been racially and culturally diverse -- in the late '60s.

University of Minnesota Sociologist, Joe Soss, explained the evolution of this strategy to

“In the 1980s and ’90s, a kind of narrative had emerged that I call the story of illegitimate takings. It held that there were white people who played by the rules, and then there were people of color — and particularly black people — who were taking from those people in an illegitimate way.”

The welfare reform of the '90s, which basically gave states the power to implement their own welfare programs, created an undeniable racial bias within the system. In a study done by Soss, it was found that five years after the bills passage, “63 percent of families in the least stringent programs were white and 11 percent were black, and in the most restrictive programs 63 percent were black and just 29 percent were white.”

Stirring up racial animosities was just one of the many strategies in the class war waged by the ruling class. In 1971, as the New Deal coalition was crumbling, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a U.S. Chamber of Commerce memo, today known as the “Powell memorandum.” This memo called for a counter-movement to “the assault on the [free] enterprise system,” being lead by  “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic.”

Powell went on:

“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

The Powell memorandum influenced the corporate community to go on full attack, and certain intellectuals, like Milton Friedman, helped push a new philosophical movement based on limited government and deregulation. After the memo, a massive mobilization of business interests formed. Businesses with public affair offices in Washington went from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in 1978, while firms with registered lobbyists grew from 175 in 1971 to 2,500 in 1982. Aggressively partisan think-tanks were also created, most notably the Heritage Foundation and the Koch brothers' very own Cato Institute. All of this helped create a shift in national opinion -- an ideology that promoted the interests of the wealthiest individuals.

This push has also lead to the government becoming more or less a millionaires club, largely because of the cost of running for office in America. In the current Congress, 271 out of 533 members are currently worth over $1 million. The median net worth in Congress was $1,029,505 in 2013, compared to $56,355 for the average American household. As Nicholas Carnes writes in the Washington Post:

“If millionaires in the United States formed their own political party, that party would make up just 3 percent of the country, but it would have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5 to 4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House.”

Clearly, the economically well off are over-represented in our government.

Now, this attack by the ruling capitalist class has never sold itself as class war; it has always ostensibly been about creating jobs, wealth and opportunity. This was the detestable genius of trickle-down economics, and accompanying euphemisms like "job-creators." Financial deregulation, tax-cuts for the wealthy, punitive welfare reform, globalist trade deals -- all of these pro-corporate policies were promoted as economically prudent and advantageous; and they were, if you happened to be in the top 1 percent.

For a long time, it has been controversial to talk about inequality and class, especially amongst the right wing. The term "class warfare" has been used to smear anyone discussing inequality as a kind of Robin Hood socialist. And it’s still happening today: After President Obama’s State of the Union Speech earlier this year, where he spoke of “middle-class economics,” Fox News labeled him “the class warfare president.” Megyn Kelly asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), “Did you hear the class warfare bell being sounded tonight?”

Unfortunately for Fox News and the ruling class, more Americans are beginning to see through this propaganda ploy, as demonstrated by the popularity of Bernie Sanders. This is largely because of the reality we live in. The data for inequality is overwhelming, and it has simply become too much to ignore; like a cancer spreading, you can only fail to identify the symptoms for so long. But it’s not just economic inequality; social mobility, usually the main argument for the free market system, has also become incredibly skewed.

In modern America, people who were born into the bottom 20 percent have just a 10 percent chance of making it to the top 20 percent in their life, according to a Brookings Institute report. The most likely case is that they will remain where they are, in poverty. If you happen to be black, the odds are even worse. Black people born into the bottom quintile have a 51 percent probability of staying there, and a slim 3 percent chance of making it to the top fifth. On the other hand, people lucky enough to have been born in the top quintile (20 percent) are most likely to remain there (30 percent) during their life, and least likely (11 percent) to end up in the bottom

What this shows is that economic or social mobility is heavily rigged in America, especially when compared to European countries, where mobility is much higher. It seems the American dream has decamped for greener pastures.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, wants to bring back the American dream, so no wonder he’s getting Americas attention.

How can this be achieved? It’s simple, the American people need to realize that the ruling class has been advancing a false narrative over the past 40 years, and that class politics is just the thing we need in this country. No longer should "class warfare" be a derogative term. If Fox News wants to call Sanders the class-warfare candidate, he should embrace it. And while we’re at it, the Republican candidates must also be labeled class-warfare candidates, they’re just on the side that has been winning for nearly a half century.

To borrow the words of Justice Powell, "Strength lies in organization [and] careful long-range planning and implementation." It also lies in numbers; this is one advantage that the ruling class can never have. The trick is in coming together, which is of course a great challenge. Social and cultural issues have always been used to the advantage of the ruling class, to divide and conquer. But extreme inequality and lack of opportunity are things that the majority can and should agree on, and Bernie Sanders may be just the man to remind Americans of the importance of class.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Class Politics Class Warfare Populism The Democratic Party