October 18, 2008

"Class Warfare" and Republican Morality

McCain's horror handImage by sloomis08 via FlickrWhen Sen. John McCain raised the spectre of "class warfare" during the third and final presidential debate, I was more than a little surprised. This seemed more like a throwback to the Republican campaigns of long ago rather than the reformer persona McCain seems determined to sell to the American people. Accusing Sen. Barack Obama of "class warfare," based on a tax plan that benefits the overwhelming majority of the American people, may seem bizarre on the surface but is actually rooted in one of the central tenets of Republican morality.

As atheists, we understand political calculations all too well. We see politician after politician ignore our voice because of our numbers and/or lack of effective organization. We tell ourselves that the 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans are of sufficient size that no sane politician could ignore us if we could just manage to come together.

Why then, would a presidential candidate intentionally campaign on an economic policy that benefits only 5% of the American population? If 16% is too great a segment to be ignored, how can McCain possibly attack Obama for trying to benefit 95% of the people? The answer may not be simple, but it is important to understand.

First, there is the moral issue. Specifically, many Republicans believe that it is immoral to provide anyone with goods or services they have not earned (i.e., "handouts"). How can this be, especially when it seems to fly in the face of much of the material attributed to Jesus in the Christian bible? From the Republican mindset, the provision of such aid is harmful - not merely to those who must pay for it but also to those who receive it. You see, many Republicans believe that government assistance rewards sloth and undermines the sort of self-discipline we should be encouraging.

I am sure that there are at least some Republicans who operate primarily out of a selfish refusal to share, but I am convinced that the majority really believes that cutting government assistance programs is good for people. Such Republicans view the Democrats as immoral not simply for wasting funds but also for fostering dependency.

Second, there is the issue of a politician's self-interest. Like all politicians, Sen. McCain knows who is financing his campaign. He understands that the large corporations who contribute expect that he will help their business by continuing to push deregulation (even as we are paying a massive price) and tax breaks. Because his policies, at least the economic ones, are massively unpopular with the voters, he cannot count on the sort of private contributions Obama is receiving. He needs the corporations and does what he has to do to line up their support.

To be clear, both the major American political parties play this game. Both need to be weaned from the lobbyist teat, but we all know that this is an uphill battle. Both parties bitterly resist meaningful campaign finance reform, and neither is willing to eject the corporate lobbyists.

The third and final factor I'd like to address is that of deception. The Republican party realized long ago that campaigning to benefit only the wealthiest Americans would not go over well with the voters. This led them to religion and a variety of religiously-driven wedge issues (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, etc.). By appealing to the basest human prejudices, they have been able to convince large numbers of Americans to vote against their own economic self-interest.

This is precisely where screams of "class warfare," "redistribution of wealth," and the like fit in. Republicans know that Obama's tax plan would be good for 95% of Americans. Thus, they must deceive the voters by using emotionally-charged phrases to distract, confuse, and enrage the very people who would be better off under Obama's plan.

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