the national interest

What If We Had a Class War and Nobody Noticed?

Photo: Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

Monday night, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared at the Met Gala wearing a dress emblazoned with the slogan “Tax the Rich,” her critics exploded in indignation. The complaint (mostly, but not exclusively, from the right) assailed AOC’s “fraud,” “hypocrisy,” and peddling “empty political slogans.”

But what exactly is the problem here? Should a politician who favors higher taxes on the rich avoid social engagements with them?

To the (very limited) extent to which the critics were able to articulate what they see as the contradiction between her beliefs and her behavior, it appears to be as follows: AOC believes rich people are terrible and should be outlawed or killed, yet she mingles comfortably among them. “Our asshat radicals cosplay the revolution,” complains cool-kids philosopher Ben Shapiro. “Actual revolutionaries eat the rich. They don’t eat cake with the rich, then declare their virtue by wearing a shirt saying ‘Eat the rich.’”

But of course AOC is not, and does not claim to be, an “actual revolutionary.” She is an advocate of dramatically more egalitarian economic policy, but not an advocate of executing the rich. Her agenda is not based on a moral critique of the rich, but a rather banal observation that rich people can stand to have less money in order to finance social needs for those in greater need.

Indeed, the whole idea that the Democratic Party’s rationale for more progressive taxation is based on personal moral condemnation of the rich is almost entirely a canard invented by the right. First conservatives accuse liberals of hating and wishing to punish the rich, and then turn around and accuse them of hypocrisy for violating the belief they never actually held.

The strangest aspect of this little setpiece in political outrage theater is that AOC’s stance on taxing the rich is not an answer we need to divine by projecting fantasies onto her appearance. She is an elected official with written, measurable policy proposals, and a key player in a live ongoing debate over what is intended to be the most significant tax increase on the rich in decades.

AOC’s glamorous evening hobnobbing with the rich is orders of magnitude less consequential than her intention to tax their fortunes. What’s truly shallow is the fixation with symbolism and cultural association rather than the concrete fiscal transfer taking shape right now. It is bizarre to watch AOC be accused of being a fake class warrior in the midst of a live class war in Washington with trillions of dollars at stake.

Just how we reached such a delusional point merits some reflection. The cause seems to be a trope in political commentary that identifies Democrats as the party of the rich and Republicans as the party of the working class. Millions and millions of words have been spilled probing the thoughts of the lumpenproletariat Trump base in their truck stops. Hardly a day goes by without one columnist or another assailing Democrats as “The Billionaires’ Party” (in this case, National Review’s Kevin Williamson, from Sunday). The left bemoans the Democrats’ alienation from the common folk, while the right gloats over it.

There is some underlying basis for this. Politics throughout the western world have grown increasingly polarized by education. And since education and income are correlated, this has pushed affluent voters increasingly to the left while nonaffluent voters have moved right. Of course, if you disaggregate education and income, you can see that affluence still makes you more Republican, and poverty makes you more Democratic. (High-income voters without a college degree are an extremely Republican constituency.) And the phenomenon is a trend, not a level, which is to say that working-class Democrats and rich Republicans remain very plentiful.

One result of this trend is that Democrats have increased their cultural power. The dominant position progressive ideas have held in academia for decades has spread to entertainment, media, and even many businesses. Conservatives are not just working the refs when they claim to feel marginalized. Holding right-wing beliefs while living in a place like New York, Washington, or Los Angeles has become a genuinely alienating experience.

But the changes in the composition of the two parties’ voting bases have not altered the long-standing class orientation of their policy agendas. Democrats still vote to redistribute income downward, while Republicans vote to redistribute it upwards. The political media’s fixation with the marginal change in the composition of the two parties’ bases has made it lose touch with the actual purpose to which they use their power.

The class orientation of their programs — the important things they actually do with power — has not changed. Democrats are pushing through a bill whose intent and effect would be to bring about a historically large downward transfer of resources. The upper-middle-class voters the party has been attracting in greater numbers would face combined tax rates at or around 60 percent, in the highest tax states. The spending these taxes would finance would go to people of modest means.

It surely isn’t Met Gala attendees who will make use of expanded Medicaid in red states or free community college. The people dismissing programs like that as undesirable or unaffordable are the conservatives who posture as tribunes of the working people.

Indeed, the two parties are more polarized over redistribution than any other single dynamic. Republicans will routinely abandon their posture against spending, deficits, centralized government control, but they will never waver from their opposition to taxing the rich.

Notably, the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill further revealed that the Republicans are not implacably opposed to taxes per se. They repeatedly floated proposals to finance roads and bridges with regressive user fees. Democrats refused, insisting that taxes must fall exclusively on people earning $400,000 or more, a demand Republicans would not abide. While they papered over the divide by settling on a series of fake funding sources, the dispute revealed how cleanly the partisan divide runs along class lines: Republicans would only accept regressive taxes, while Democrats would only accept progressive taxes.

For all Donald Trump’s déclassé behavior and political appeal to non-college-educated voters, neither his administration nor his political allies ever challenged the party’s plutocratic cast. His administration’s signature domestic policy revolved around a giant tax cut for the wealthy and business owners, and a failed effort to throw middle-class people off their health insurance to finance another tax cut for the wealthy.

The Republican Party has spurred a lot of talk about populism, but nothing resembling a serious challenge to its fanatical opposition to redistribution. If J.D. Vance is elected to the Senate, he will vote for the next big capital gains or estate tax cut Republicans put in front of him.

Even a casual familiarity with the contours of the ongoing policy fight would dispel the vulgar Marxist assumption that the Democratic Party’s growing support among affluent voters would signify a rightward change in its economic program. It’s downright strange to be living through a polarized fight over whether hundreds of billions of dollars will remain in the hands of the wealthy, or instead be used to finance benefits for the downtrodden without the broader debate taking any real note of it.

You would think the class contours of the debate in Joe Biden’s Washington would be obvious enough that people clinging to their image of fancy Democrats and downscale Republicans couldn’t ignore it anymore. But the human ability to ignore the obvious is strong enough that many of us can’t see who wants to tax the rich even when it’s staring right at us in blazing red letters.

What If We Had a Class War and Nobody Noticed?