One of the most wrenching political signs to come out of the Occupy Wall Street movement reads “they only call it class warfare when we fight back.”
A new survey on class warfare by the Pew Research Center suggests that middle-class dirge is an increasingly common refrain in post-Bush America as the wealthy continue to grow wealthier and the financial playing field increasingly is tilted toward them by a U.S. Congress in which half the Senators and Representatives are now millionaires.
The percentage of respondents in the survey who said there was a “strong” or “very strong” conflict between the rich and poor grew 19% from 2009 to 2011 – to 66%. The increase was strongest among independent voters, who will ultimately decide who wins the 2012 presidential race.
“The Occupy Wall Street movement no longer occupies Wall Street, but the issue of class conflict has captured a growing share of the national consciousness,” said Pew survey analyst Richard Morin. “These changes in attitudes over a relatively short period of time may reflect the income and wealth inequality message conveyed by Occupy Wall Street protesters across the country in late 2011 that led to a spike in media attention. But the changes also may reflect a growing public awareness of underlying shifts in the distribution of wealth in American society.”
The new study is the kind of thing that is tracked closely by members of this nation’s sheltered political aristocracy, who rarely have any idea what’s really going on because their lives are so different than those of the middle-class Americans they’re supposed to represent. Most live in affluent enclaves, enjoy generous health care and retirement benefits, have no children in the military, and receive special treatment from airlines, media, banks and cable television providers – the very abusive industries they’re supposed to regulate.
America’s increasing economic polarization is no surprise to most of the rest of us, given the predatory corporate behavior that gave birth to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year amid the harshest economic climate for the middle class since The Great Depression. We’ve endured mass layoffs and forceclosures, higher gasoline and food prices, absurb cable television bills, costlier health care, surging college tuition, predatory lending, redlight cameras, airline bag charges, new bank fees, and a plague of government fees in lieu of taxes that have lifted the cost of everything from traffic tickets to bridge tolls.
Meanwhile, the U.S. experienced a net gain of only 440,000 jobs in 2011, a rate of job creation that will take 21 years to compensate for the all positions destroyed by the failed presidency of George W. Bush.
The official unemployment rate of 8.5% belies a national labor force that has grown less than 1% to 132 million since Jan. 1, 2000, even as the national population has grown by 12% to 314 million. A more reliable measure of joblessness, the employment-to-population ratio, has contracted to 58.5% from 64.4% during the same time-span.
“The Occupy Movement has really made people who might otherwise not be so prescient about income inequality stand up and take notice,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. “High unemployment has also really contributed to the sense of hopelessness among people who never felt they would be unemployed. That’s fueling the perception that class warfare exists in the United States.”
The survey by the nonprofit Pew Research Center is just the latest in a series of nonpartisan reports detailing the demise of representative government in the United States and the rise of the kind of plutocracy that legendary novelist Jack London, author of “The Call of the Wild,” envisioned in the early 1900s in a lesser known book called “The Iron Heel.” It comes on the back of new data from the U.S. Census Department that found the proportion of overall wealth held by the top 10% of the population increased to 56% in 2009 from 49% in 2005.
Many wealthy Americans now seem to live in an echo chamber in which the fable that they earned this largesse entirely on their own through hard work, intelligence and courage is repeated with the same accuracy and frequency as a political advertisement. The idea in both cases being that a half truth repeated with enough gusto and frequency eventually can be transformed into a full truth.
That transformation assumes that the middle class is so credulous that we really have forgotten the bailout of the banking sector, which officially totaled $700 billion but has generated a $3.5 trillion increase in federal debt and record banking sector profits.
It assumes we didn’t notice that many of our neighbors, friends and relatives have lost jobs as the companies that once employed them have boosted profits, carved tax loopholes for themselves while hiking their political donations, and shifted production overseas.
It assumes we’re blind to the rampant nepotism practiced by members of the political aristocracy, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The wealthiest elected official in American history has ruthlessly trampled on the rights of Occupy Wall Street protesters, while finding jobs in his administration for both a sister and daughter.
It assumes that we think Donald Trump is entitled to make a show out of firing people because of his business acumen, even though three companies associated with the Trump brand have filed for bankruptcy protection.
It assumes we really believe none of the 54,000 U.S. students who graduated with journalism and communications degrees in 2011, or any of the thousands of idled mid-career journalists, were as good as Chelsea Clinton, Meghan McCain and Jenna Bush when MSNBC was hiring news reporters last year.
It assumes we haven’t noticed that our government has completely gamed both term limits and restrictions on political donations to give us a U.S. Congress that features 41-year incumbent Charles Rangel of New York, 51-year incumbent Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, 41-year incumbent Bill Young of Florida, and 38-year incumbent Don Young of Alaska. As well as a disgraceful U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that allows corporations to make unlimited anonymous donations to political campaigns on a convenient tax-free basis.
It assumes that we have forgotten that we waged war in Iraq for 8.5 years at a cost of 4,500 American lives and at least $800 billion without advancing the greater good of this nation one whit, even as defense contractors with ties to the Bush regime grew fat. And that we haven’t noticed that the pre-requisites of the 1% rarely seem to include any kind of military service by their children in a combat role.
In short, that wealthy Americans – with some notable individual exceptions – are no longer capable of leading this nation because they no longer understand that leadership is done by example. Instead of making sacrifices to advance the greater good, many of our elected leaders now seem to view their offices as a license to steal.
“When you look at all of these factors together – income inequality where most people are losing money and the guy with all the money is the only person who can afford to buy a lobbyist or bribe a politician – what you end up with is a crisis at the heart of our freedom,” said middle class pundit Jesse LaGreca, a member of the Occupy Wall Street movement. “What effect will this have? In the short term, more political corruption and pandering and empty promises, but in the long run, if uncorrected, we will see the average person participating in a totally rigged political and economic system. Some would say we are already there.”
According to the Pew Study, more Americans now believe the rich have not earned their elevated status on the basis of personal qualities. It found that 46% of us believe most rich people are wealthy mainly because they know the right people or were born into wealthy families, compared with 43% who say they became rich mainly through their own hard work, ambition or education.
“Whatever else Occupy Wall Street did – and it had some flaky elements – it raised consciousness,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University.
The Pew study also found that the public’s startling sharp awareness of class warfare has outpaced other distinctions, which traditionally allowed the wealthiest 1% to weaken working class influence via divide-and-conquer tactics based on race, religion, age and immigration status.
Only 34% of the survey’s respondents reported strong conflicts between young and old, and only 62% saw conflicts between native-born American and immigrants. Meanwhile, the ratio of Americans who saw conflict between blacks and whites edged downward to 38% from 39% in 2009.
“Occupy Wall Street is in many ways a social reaction to extreme corruption and a total lack of accountability in the private sector and government,” said LaGreca. “As corporate lawlessness and corrupt politicians have become more extreme in their demands, it makes perfect sense that working-class people who are feeling the pinch are becoming more and more aware of the simple fact that they are getting screwed… We’ve had endless war and tax cuts for the rich for the last 10 years and now the average American is broke, the deficit has skyrocketed and the rich have it better than ever.”
Harrison, the political science professor, said the new political landscape dictates that more attention will be paid to middle-class concerns in the 2012 election cycle, which is expected to feature a record $7 billion in political spending. However, she said lip service is unlikely to translate into meaningful change by members of the two political machines.
“The middle class in the United States is so large and really constitutes the bulk of independent swing voters, particularly this election year,” Harrison said. “We’re going to see both (presidential) candidates kowtowing to the idea of protecting the middle class, but I’m not sure the policies that either candidate will be implementing for real will advance those goals.”