Are we more “polarized” and “partisan” than we were in the past? Political commentators think so. In a recent Atlantic profile, conservative pollster Frank Luntz attributed his cynicism about American politics to the unprecedented polarization of the American people he has seen in his recent work with focus groups. They are “contentious and argumentative,” don’t “listen to each other as they once had,” and are not “interested in hearing other points of view.” The fault lies in Washington, where the people are “picking up their leads.”
Luntz blames both parties, but especially targets President Obama’s “message of class divisions, haves and have-nots, of redistribution.” But implication that class warfare rhetoric is something new in American politics is historically false. The clash of rich and poor has been a constant theme of American history since the Revolution, and was integral to the framing of the Constitution. For the Founders, the “haves and have-nots” were the two most important “factions” that in the Constitutional order would check and balance one another so that neither could threaten the freedom of the other.
Illustration by Barbara Kelley
The concern with class warfare was part of a broader fear of extreme democracy, which, going back to ancient Athens, was seen as the instrument of the poor’s attack on the rich. It would lead to the redistribution of property, what the Founders called a “leveling spirit.” Many of the attacks on Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, for example, which called for a more democratic political order, emphasized the danger to property. Churchman and loyalist Charles Ingliswarned, “All our property throughout the continent would be unhinged” if Paine’s democratic government was created. It’s worth remembering that among John Locke’s natural rights were life, liberty, and property.
In the months before the 1787 Constitutional convention, the armed outbreak in western Massachusetts known as Shays’ Rebellion, a protest against debt and taxes, was a powerful reminder of the dangers of what Founder Benjamin Rush called “mobocracy.” Revolutionary War hero General Henry Knox in a letter to George Washington explained the outbreak in terms of class warfare. The rebels, Knox wrote, “have never paid any, or but very little taxes––But they see the weakness of government; They feel at once their own poverty, compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter, in order to remedy the former.” As Knox interpreted their beliefs, private property “ought to be the common property of all. And he that attempts opposition to this creed is an enemy of equity and justice.”
For the delegates gathering in Philadelphia, the fear of class warfare and attacks on property were an important concern in designing the government. Given that those with property and those without comprised two clashing factions, the government had to create institutions that allowed each faction to check and balance the other. In arguing for the “mixed government” that limited both the democratical and oligarchical elements, Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris highlighted the clashing private interests of the poor and those of “great personal property” and the “aristocratic spirit.”
And what is the “interest” of the rich? “The Rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest. They always did. They always will. The proper security against them is to form them into a separate interest. The two forces will then control each other . . . By thus combining and setting apart the aristocratic interest, the popular interest will be combined against it. There will be a mutual check and mutual security.” In the end, the “aristocratic” Senate, chosen by the state legislators and serving longer terms, would check and balance the democratic House of Representatives directly elected by the people.
In Federalist 10, the most influential case for the Constitutional order, James Madison made the same argument for the clash between rich and poor as the most dangerous factional strife the Constitution was designed to limit. “The most common and durable source of factions, has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold, and those who are without property, have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination.” The mixed government of checks and balances, and the sovereignty of the states enshrined in federalism, would prevent these factions and their conflicting interests from concentrating power in the federal government and thus threatening the freedom of the whole.
Subsequent American political history has been driven by this same dynamic of rich and poor, democracy, and oligarchy. In Washington’s second term, politics began to divide into two parties, the antidemocratic Federalists, and the Democratic-Republicans, which eventually became the Democratic Party. In 1792, James Madison defined these two parties explicitly in class warfare terms: The Federalists are “those, who from particular interest, from natural temper, or from the habits of life, are more partial to the opulent than to the other classes of society; and having debauched themselves into a persuasion that mankind are incapable of governing themselves, it follows with them, of course, that government can be carried on only by the pageantry of rank, the influence of money and emoluments, and the terror of military force.” Madison’s party, which would take the White House under Thomas Jefferson in 1800, comprised the people who opposed rule by an elite of wealth or birth.
Such class warfare rhetoric continued throughout the nineteenth century. In 1824 Andrew Jackson thundered against “a moneyed aristocracy dangerous to the liberties of the country,” and argued against the Constitutional “filters,” such as the Supreme Court and the Electoral College, which lessened the power of the people. Yet Jackson was suspicious of a federal government dominated by the wealthy and prone to corruption, and supported state sovereignty as a check on the overweening power of elites. With the rise of the Progressives in the late nineteenth century, the demand for greater democracy and equality was harnessed to the expansion of the federal government as the instrument for achieving these goals. This meant reconstructing the Constitution and changing its internal order of the balance of power and the autonomy of the states.
Government regulation of the economy and redistribution of wealth through national taxation became the means for curtailing the power of the rich and elevating the status of the rest. It is no surprise, then, that class warfare rhetoric was common during this period. At the 1912 nominating convention for the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party, former Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge orated, “We mean not only to make prosperity steady, but to give to the many who earn it a just share of that prosperity instead of helping the few who do not earn it to take an unjust share. The Progressive motto is ‘Pass the prosperity around.’”
President Obama would echo that sentiment in October 2008 when he said, “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Arguments for legislation to increase the income tax struck the same note. The 1916 Revenue Act doubled most income tax rates of the Sixteenth Amendment, passed three years earlier, to a top rate of 13 percent. The law also created an inheritance tax. At the time, The New Republic called it “a powerful equalitarian attack upon swollen incomes.” Progressive economist E.R.A. Seligman praised the 1917 tax act, which raised the top rate to 77 percent, as “fiscal justice.”
Big government—and its regulation of business, wealth redistribution, and social welfare transfers—has been sold with a class warfare argument that some unfairly have too much while many have too little. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his party mastered such rhetoric in gaining support for New Deal legislation. In 1932 Roosevelt proposed that government should now be “modifying and controlling our economic units” and “adjusting production to consumption [and] distributing wealth and products more equitably,” though “it may in some measure qualify the freedom of action of individual units within the business.”
The 1936 Democratic platform warned, “We shall continue to use the powers of government to end the activities of the malefactors of great wealth who defraud and exploit the people,” and Roosevelt condemned “the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power.” Such remarks are not that much different from the rhetoric of Barack Obama decrying “a dangerous and growing inequality” and calling on the rich to “pay their fair share.”
Class warfare rhetoric is not the problem we should focus on. Nor should we complain about our “divisive” politics and “polarization.” Such political angst bespeaks a misunderstanding of the Constitutional order, which assumed such divisive factional politics to be unavoidable given human nature, and sought only to keep a minority from tyrannizing a majority, or a majority from tyrannizing a minority. What we call “gridlock” was the Constitutional version of the medical maxim, “First do no harm.”
Moreover, the bipartisan worry that our polarized politics keeps “problems from being solved” reflects how successful the Progressive movement has been in changing our perception of the proper role of the federal government. The Founders created the political order they did to limit the federal government, and they assumed that local and state government, those closest to the people and more knowledgeable about local conditions, should solve the problems beyond the abilities of individuals, families, and civil society. National defense, regulation of interstate trade, and most important, protecting the freedom and rights of the people were the primary functions of the federal government, which was restrained precisely because the Founders feared concentrated power. The notion that the national government should expand by creating bureaus and agencies staffed with unelected and unaccountable technocrats charged with “solving problems” is the legacy of Progressivism, not the Constitution.
Class warfare, and the partisanship and polarization it serves, have always been part of the American political tradition. They reflect a healthy competition lacking with one-party dominance, the same political rivalry Madison intended when he wrote in Federalist 10, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Rather than fret over partisan rhetoric, we should focus on restoring the Constitutional vision of limited government so we can slow the growth of the federal Leviathan whose ruinous costs and encroaching power are the real danger.