AFT Guild

Get Your Class War On

By THOMAS FRANK

Now comes the fall culture-war offensive, catching the Democrats by surprise as it always does and spreading panic and desperation among their ranks. As the depth of the Republican breakthrough becomes apparent to Democrats, they launch the same feeble counterattacks that failed them last time, prudishly correcting misleading GOP advertisements and crying for the recess monitor when the other side plays dirty.

And none of this works.

Things would go better for Democrats if they recognized the culture war for what it is: a debased form of class war, a false populism in which an "authentic" America rises up against its would-be masters, an effete bunch of arugula-eaters who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." But a visceral feeling of class conflict is what lies at the core of the whole thing: a righteous grievance against wrongful, pedantic rulers. It is so attractive emotionally that I often wish I could sign up for it myself.

Since the 1970s, and with only a few exceptions, the Democratic response to this endlessly recurring attack has been to regard it as something beneath contempt -- which only reinforces the persecution fantasies at the heart of the culture-war myth. Take GOP vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin, for example, the flag bearer for this year's fall offensive. Like every other culture warrior before her, Mrs. Palin presents herself as a person looked down on and sneered at by the high and the mighty, defined as the liberal elite. Look down on or sneer at Mrs. Palin and you have merely reinforced the story, offered an illustration of what the lady is talking about.

When Republicans cry class conflict, it only seems fair that they get class conflict in return. And at this particular economic juncture it is the Democrats, not the GOP, who have all the weapons. Now if only they can be persuaded to use them.

Consider the current economic catastrophe, which has been building for a year. Just as it has taken down Countrywide, Bear Stearns, Indymac, Freddie, Fannie, Lehman, Merrill and Lord knows who else in the weeks to come, it has also pulverized the reigning conservative shibboleths of the past 28 years.

There is simply no way to blame this disaster, as Republicans used to do, on labor unions or over-regulation. No, this is the conservatives' beloved financial system doing what comes naturally. Freed from the intrusive meddling of government, just as generations of supply-siders and entrepreneurial exuberants demanded it be, the American financial establishment has proceeded to cheat and deceive and beggar itself -- and us -- to the edge of Armageddon. It is as though Wall Street was run by a troupe of historical re-enactors determined to stage all the classic panics of the 19th century.

By the way, this is the same system the Republicans would still apparently like to put in charge of Social Security. The same system that is minting millionaire CEOs, that is holding the line on wages, and that we will be bailing out for years.

On Monday, John McCain blamed the disaster on "greed by some based in Wall Street." It's a personal failing of some evil few, in other words, and presumably capitalism will start working again once we squeeze the self-interest out of it. In the weeks to come, maybe Sen. McCain will also take a bold stand against covetousness and sloth.

But the structural changes of the past 28 years that have made all this possible -- the waves of deregulation, the takeover of government itself by business interests -- these haven't made too much of an impression on him. In March Mr. McCain actually called for more deregulation in response to the crisis, and at the Republican convention two weeks ago an ebullient Mitt Romney promised that Mr. McCain would take "a weed-whacker to excessive regulation." Just for good measure, this former management consultant also called for yet another round of attacks on the unionized federal workforce, deploring its "tyrannosaurus appetite."

Some tyrannosaurus! Thanks to the party of Romney and McCain, federal work is today so financially unattractive to top talent that it might as well be charity work. It's one of the main reasons -- other than outright conquest by the industries they're supposed to be overseeing -- that our regulatory agencies can't seem to get out of bed in the morning.

There has scarcely been a better time to shove the arugula aside and talk about the realities of class. It is heartening to see that Barack Obama is beginning to do just that, but he must keep hammering at the point until everyone in America understands the choice that lies before us.

Write to thomas@wsj.com

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