What If There Was a Class War and Nobody Showed Up?

In a new book that questions the concept of 'class war,' two academics argue that income inequality is not a partisan issue but an American problem, and that citizens should 'make a ruckus' about it.
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In the midst of a profound financial challenge for the United States, with debates raging over the role that taxes and governmental regulation should play in rehabilitating the economy, a new book by a pair of political scientists asks a timely question: So where's the class war?

While our talking heads and pundits are only too eager to divide Americans into two diametrically opposed camps — either obdurate advocates of unrestrained free markets or unwavering proponents of governmental solutions to economic travails — the evidence, according to this book, is quite the contrary. Indeed, Class War? What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality, uses 70 years of opinion studies and surveys to make the effective argument that Americans agree broadly, rather than disagree sharply, on most fundamental economic questions. There's no class war, the authors assert, because Americans just don't disagree enough to fight.

Although written by a pair of academics with rather lengthy titles — Benjamin I. Page is the Gordon Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University, and Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair, and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Hubert Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota — Class War? is aimed at a general audience.

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This is not a book packed with carefully constructed footnotes and citations intended to settle nuanced scholarly debates. Rather, it is written in a familiar, conversational style with chapters split into short snippets that keep the ideas moving quickly; indeed the authors write that they have "forsaken some of the conventions of academia, in the hope of communicating with general readers who might be put off by scholarly jargon or extensive discussions of academic research."

To that end, Class War? succeeds in throwing off the shackles of academic discourse and speaking directly to readers, but its effectiveness nevertheless rests on meticulous analysis of survey data and opinion polling on economic equality. Page and Jacobs even introduce their own study, the "Inequality Survey," in which they asked questions drawn from previous surveys from as far back as the 1930s, allowing them to contextualize their findings in terms of past public attitudes. Using this method, the authors "confirm, update, or (in some cases) refute virtually all the main conclusions of previous researchers."

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Their main finding is two-pronged and may seem, at first, to be paradoxical, but as Page and Jacobs write, "Americans are both philosophically conservative and operationally liberal." They term this approach to economic thinking "conservative egalitarianism," a belief system that admires individual self-reliance but accepts public intervention as necessary to help citizens strive for the American Dream on an ostensibly level playing field.

"The idea of government-guaranteed food, clothing, and shelter has been favored by large majorities of Americans since at least 1964, and is embraced across lines of class, race, and party," the authors write. "... An important reason for the lack of class war is widespread agreement across social and economic classes in favor of targeted government programs that foster the American Dream and provide a measure of economic security."

But, of course, examples of economic inequality abound in the United States, and some of the strongest sections of Class War? use real-world examples — from San Jose, Calif., to Richmond, Va. — to drive home the authors' point that "down on the street, differences in income and what it means can become obvious.

"Inequality is not an abstract notion raised by outside troublemakers. Americans see inequality because they live it." According to a Pew Research study in 2007, 63 percent of Americans say the country is "losing ground" on the gap between the rich and the poor. But recognizing a problem and taking to the streets are two wildly different ideas to most Americans, and as the authors write: "The majorities who favor reducing inequality are not scary mobs of landless seventeenth-century peasants with pitchforks."

Indeed, talking honestly about income inequality without fear of setting off inter-class warfare is a necessary first step for policy-makers, the authors insist. And rather than pretending the problem doesn't exist out of an irrational fear of cataclysmic citizen-on-citizen violence, Page and Jacobs argue that the public needs more information about - and involvement in - the income inequality issue; "or, to put it more simply," they write, "getting ordinary Americans involved, getting them organized, and making a ruckus."

Income inequality, they stress, is not a Republican or Democratic issue, but an American problem. Time and again, public opinion polls and surveys have shown that across economic, geographical and ideological lines, most Americans support a higher minimum wage, improved public schools, better access to universal health care -and the use of taxes to fund these types of programs. At the same time, the average American remains deeply skeptical about the government's capacity to address these problems, and believes in the individual's ability to chart his or her own course toward the American Dream.

But rather than a battlefield, Page and Jacobs assert these ideas represent some common ground. It's up to politicians, pundits and policy-makers to see this "conservative egalitarianism" for the opportunity it represents; if not, the authors warn, the income inequality gap will only grow larger.

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