Friday, February 13, 2009
The Underlying Fear
It is not difficult to see behind the criticism of Wall Street bonuses and the proposed salary cap for senior executives, the looming threat of a major battle between the haves and the have-nots. It is the story hidden inside the congressional battles over the financial rescue package and Obama's failing efforts at bipartisanship.
Class warfare has been a central feature of western history since the French Revolution, and it has played itself out again and again in European politics. FDR's New Deal, crafted while armies of the unemployed marched in protest and camped out on the Washington Mall, is widely seen as the effort that "saved" the US from a proletarian take-over. Now, as Obama's rescue plan is being compared with Roosevelt's, we can't help but sense the same underlying threat beneath the surface. The anxiety is that there could be winners and losers on a scale unprecedented in our history.
The signs of this fear are subtle, and many of them are masked as denial. Newsweek, for example, featured an article last week on "Why There Won't be a Revolution," making the point that "Americans might get angry sometimes, but we don't hate the rich. We prefer to laugh at them." And to make their point, they posted a picture of Donald Trump in his absurd, over-the-top bedroom, evoking images of Versailles. But there isn't much laughter these days and there is not likely to be any more laughter as unemployment mounts, foreclosures continue, and people watch their retirement savings disappear.
Obama was chastised during his campaign for suggesting the tax system be used to "redistribute wealth," actually an old-fashioned, commonplace idea. In these days, however, it smacked too close to what more and more people wanted to see happen, but were afraid to say or hear. Now, if anything, the sentiment is rising. Curtailing salaries and bonuses, a far more radical idea, looks as if it is about to happen.
American politics has usually been a subtle dance between two parties both close to the center. Radical change is kept at the margins. For all his occasional radical talk, FDR's establishment ties made him a credible mediator, and his policies did undermine the prospects for revolution in this country. Obama, similarly, is no radical. He wants to bring us all together. Class warfare, no doubt, is the last thing he wants to stimulate.
I am not suggesting that class warfare is actually lurking in the wings. It's not so much that we like to keep the rich around to laugh at as that, for the most part, we still hope to emulate them. America has not lost its promise as the land of opportunity, and we want our rich to represent the reality of that promise -- though that want is no doubt hedged about with more and more ambivalence.
My point is that the unconsciously registered threat of class warfare is actually inhibiting the discussions we need to have about what to do. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is just too great. The disparity between the almost $15 million average salary of CEO's and the average wage is unfair and, at this point, discouraging. What we don't know we know about the issues we face is that our hidden fears of class warfare may prevent us from thinking and speaking freely about the remedies we need to consider.