The Last Page

The Last Page

During the first month of this year, the nation’s major newspapers used the phrase “class warfare” in 267 stories, compared with 372 times in all of 2002. One might think the revolution is at hand. The reality, though, has more to do with the routines of American politics and journalism than with capitalists and workers on the barricades.

The official declaration of class warfare in America came on Thursday, January 2, when George W. Bush, seeking to preempt criticisms of his tax cut plan, said, “I understand the politics of economic stimulus—that some would like to turn this into class warfare. That’s not how I think.”

If Bush was worried that his policy would trigger inflammatory class warfare rhetoric from Democrats, he shouldn’t have been. The strongest same-day critique came from David Sirota, a spokesperson for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee in USA Today: “Who’s waging class warfare—the president, who insists on giving giant tax breaks to his rich pals . . . or Democrats, who try to stop that kind of irresponsible behavior?”

Most newspapers simply framed the class warfare debate as Republicans versus Democrats, pitting advocates and opponents of Bush’s policies in the standard “he said/she said” format. But the debate was pretty one-sided. The key representative of the nation’s working families—AFL-CIO president John Sweeney—was almost invisible in the mainstream media. Except for a January 4 story in the Chicago Sun-Times—which quoted Sweeney as saying, “The president should shelve the dividend cut and focus instead on a targeted recovery package that will help average American families”—the nation’s top labor leader was basically shut out of the class warfare debate in the nation’s major papers.

The real debate over Bush’s statement took place on editorial and op-ed pages. An unsigned column on January 26 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explored the origins of the phrase (even citing the Communist Manifesto), and concluded, “Today, class warfare is a phrase that conservatives use to blast liberals, and that liberals, long on the defensive about it, are at last beginning to use to attack conservatives.”

Chicago Tribune News Service columnist Matthew Miller raised the class warfare issue by posing the question, “Is the distribution of  income produced by the free market presumptively moral?” After reviewing the arguments on both sides, he concluded that it wasn’t, then asked his readers, “Which side are you on?”

It was the New York Times op-ed page that waged the most effective attack on Bush’s economic program, with columnist Paul Krugman quarterbacking a team that included regulars Maureen Dowd, Nicholas Kristoff, and Bob Herbert. These columnists consis...