As Oakland burns and Republican pundits and politicos gear up for a new conservative counterrevolution, it’s important to remember that it was not too long ago when the critique du jour of Occupy Wall Street was its lack of a cohesive policy platform (never mind the fact that this is in fact among the most trite of the commentariat’s stock criticisms of every protest movement—including the Tea Party). These days, however, one hears less of this line of argument—inane as it was—as the allegation of choice seems to have shifted to one of subversive class warfare.
The ostensibly Democratic pollster Douglas E. Schoen ’74, for example, condemned the movement as one that “reflects values that are dangerously out of touch with the broad mass of the American people—and particularly with swing voters who are largely independent and have been trending away from the president since the debate over health-care reform. The protesters have a distinct ideology and are bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies…it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence.”
That Schoen, a “Democratic” Fox News analyst who opposes Obamacare and has earnestly suggested that President Obama should not seek reelection, was able to arrive at this conclusion on the basis of a poll that found that only four percent of Occupiers wished for the “radical redistribution of wealth”—less than the five percent favoring a flat tax—is a remarkable achievement. Somehow, Schoen interpreted a poll in which only three percent of Occupiers express opposition to capitalism—as opposed to the nearly 80 percent decrying the influence of special interests, stagnant middle class wages, partisanship, unemployment, income inequality, corruption, and entrenched bureaucracy—as evidence of pervasive opposition to the free market.
There is no denying that Occupy Wall Street is a leftwing movement—zero of the respondents to Schoen’s poll identified as Republican. But Schoen’s hysterical hyperbole demonstrates the fallaciousness of the widespread paranoia over the mirage of class warfare that has infected Republican partisans and centrist Democrat hacks alike. This irrational victim mentality has also swept up in its tide a fair number of the supposed casualties of this imaginary conflict—the wealthy.
Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson, for example, told Fox News Sunday that “You don't get people to like you by attacking them or demeaning their success. You know, I grew up in a family of 10 kids, first one to go to college, and I've earned my success. I've earned my right to fly private if I choose to do so. And by attacking me it is not going to convince me that I should take a bigger hit because I happen to be wealthy.”
In a similar vein, David Moore wrote in the Wall Street Journal that a panhandler’s rejection of his one-dollar donation proved that “[Obama’s] incendiary message has now reached the streets. His complaints that rich people must ‘pay their fair share’ have now goaded some of our society's most unfortunate, including one who felt compelled to refuse money because it was not enough.”
In 1945, the top marginal income tax rate was 94 percent. In 1981, it was 69.13 percent. Today, it is 35 percent, and President Obama would like for it to return to the 39.6 percent rate preceding the two rounds of temporary tax cuts enacted under President Bush. This, by the way, would constitute a smaller increase than that made under President Clinton, who hiked the top marginal rate to 39.6 percent from the lower baseline of 31 percent; no one today is still accusing Clinton of class warfare or labeling the 1990s as an era particularly hostile to the wealthy.
Granted, it is understandable why wealthy individuals who never supported President Obama might balk at the prospect of tax hikes. The president, after all, also favors limiting itemized deductions for families with taxable income of $250,000 or more a year and ending tax breaks for oil companies, corporate-jet owners and investment-fund managers—policies that have little practical—as opposed to political—purpose. However, it is jarring to see wealthy supporters of Obama from 2008—including much of Wall Street—change their minds now; why did they choose to act in their self interest in 2011 and not three years ago?
Political optics are also the prime motivation for retiring the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, for the bulk of the Bush-era structural deficit in fact stems from the Bush tax cuts for the middle class. Somehow, this fact did not seem to bother wealthy Obama supporters in 2008. How is it that Obama—whose platform has not changed in any substantive way from 2008, has now become, in the words of New York Times columnist and ex-Obamaphile David Brooks, “the populist fighter, the scourge of the privileged class”? Does targeting loopholes for corporate jets truly constitute an assault on success?
Since President Obama’s inauguration, the wealthy and their apologists have adopted a siege mentality and think themselves latter-day John Galts. They behave like martyrs in an era of unprecedented corporate profits and income inequality. Yes, soaking the rich will neither balance the budget nor restore prosperity—but a return to Clinton-era tax rates and closing symbolic loopholes hardly constitutes soaking the rich. And if a protest of Wall Street’s unpunished complicity in the financial crisis, a panhandler’s ingratitude, and a president’s tenor are what now pass for class warfare, then the bar for class warfare has been set quite low indeed.
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a former associate editorial chair, is an English concentrator in Currier House.