“Their desperation is to play the class warfare card” [Herman Cain, on Fox News]
“Class warfare has been a potent campaign tactic in the Obama era” [Salena Zito, from Real Clear Politics]
“Quinn Unloads with Class Warfare Rhetoric” [Representative Joe Walsh, page title on his website, Walsh Freedom]
What if I said that a woman earning $9 an hour, who is responsible and works hard but struggles to live on her salary, should be paid enough to actually live, and that it is immoral not to pay her a decent wage? There are people out there right now who would line up to scream “class warfare!” at me.
The few quotes I’ve used above represent a tidal wave of rhetoric in current American politics referring to “class warfare”. In the last few years, this phrase has been used often, sometimes, perhaps, as a lazy summary of a valid point, but most of the time as a diversion from a valid point.
In rhetoric, using such a phrase is called a “red herring”. The metaphor originates as a reference to hunting, in which a dog following a trail can be distracted from what it is actually after into something irrelevant by someone throwing a smelly fish to one side. To translate this metaphor, if we are following a logical path of an argument, a red herring is intended to distract us to an irrelevant point by something that has a stronger emotional smell.
Technically, rhetoric is not about logic, it is about persuasion, and if it works, it works. And politics, as God almighty sitting on his throne knows, is not about logic. It is about power and winning.
The phrase “class warfare” literally would mean that people of one social class, normally defined by wealth, are engaging in physical fighting with members of another social class. Obviously, there is no actual war going on here, no acquisition of weapons (not by the poor, anyway), but the word “war” is such a powerful term, isn’t it? If you can make it sound like your opponents even consider starting a war, that makes them sound pretty bad, that they would stoop to destruction and violence.
If we were to use logic, we might say that in a war, people get hurt. So if a war is going on in America between rich and poor, who’s getting hurt?
Here in America, where we so loudly and so often pretend that even though, yeah, we sort of have social classes, it’s not like England, is it?, because here anybody can go from poor to rich just like whatever rare example I have on hand. So if you criticize the rich, you’re criticizing yourself! In a really, really abstract, theoretical way, criticizing who you could be, even though you’re not.
In addition, the phrase “class warfare” sounds like it might refer to Russia or some place that tried communism for a while. Or even worse, socialism! (If you have education, you probably see the stupidity in saying that socialism is worse, but this is rhetoric, not logic, and we’re talking about American politics.)
The next time you hear someone in America use the phrase “class warfare”, even if that person is wearing a suit and tie, even if they are sitting at a polished desk on TV, even if they speak in a calm voice—rhetorically, they are screaming and waving their arms in the air. They are saying, in effect, one of two things: (1) “Even though I have a real point, I don’t respect you enough to rationally explain it”; or, much more likely, (2) “I can’t discuss this topic logically, because I know I’ll lose.”
And I bet whoever says it is getting paid more than $9 an hour. Because a woman waiting on the bus to go home after working her low-paid job is too tired to start a war.