Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released a report showing that the American public now perceives the conflict between the rich and poor as more prevalent and intense than conflicts between black and whites or conflicts between immigrants and the native-born. The number seeing those class conflicts has jumped 19 points since 2009, and amazingly, even 55 percent of Republicans think there are strong conflicts between rich and poor. For the GOP, about to nominate a guy who earned a couple of hundred million dollars as what one of his opponents calls a "vulture capitalist," this is disconcerting news. First, a graph:
It's no surprise that the Republican establishment is freaking out a bit over the new attacks on Mitt Romney's career in private equity, particularly this remarkable video from a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich. They've worked very hard for the last couple of decades to construct and reinforce a narrative that redirects class resentment—encourages it, actually, so long as it's pointed in the proper direction.
For all their talk of the horrors of "class warfare," conservatives are enormous class warriors, it's just that they want people to think differently about class. Their story goes like this: There is no such thing as an economic elite, but if you want to get mad about your situation, your anger should be directed at the cultural elite. Snooty Upper West Side liberals, sanctimonious hippies, stupid Hollywood actors, arrogant college professors, biased reporters—these are the people who are keeping you down. They hate your religion, they hate your taste in food and entertainment, they hate the country you love, and they're trying to subvert everything you believe in and hold dear. Don't get mad at the corporation that closed the plant in your town, get mad at some professor of cultural studies somewhere who said contemptuous things about America. Don't get mad at the politicians who want to eliminate capital gains taxes and regulations on Wall Street, get mad at the people who want to put up a mosque in lower Manhattan. Forget about economics, because there's a more important war going on, a war for the soul of our nation, between good, honest, hard-working folks like you and the Republicans who want to represent you on one side, and the godless fornicating arrogant liberals who are trying to destroy America.
This has been the formula for success (along with a healthy dose of racial resentment thrown in) for every Republican campaign since Richard Nixon discovered the "Silent Majority" in 1968. If you want to hear its current form, all you need to do is tune in to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly for a few minutes. No matter what the subject of the day is, the discussion will always circle back to the conservative class war. But as the Pew results show, you can only get people to ignore economic reality for so long.