Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality

John Benson is not totally convinced by this analysis, but appreciates its challenging stance

June 4, 2009

This is a small book with very big aims. Provocatively titled and competitively priced, it takes as its starting point the age-old conundrum - for the Left at least - as to why there has been no class war in the US. The question is particularly pertinent and perplexing today, argue Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, because of the way in which economic inequality has been increasing since the 1970s. As they point out, many commentators now divide Americans into two opposing groups: unbending advocates of free markets, and uncompromising supporters of government intervention.

It is a dichotomy that Page and Jacobs reject out of hand. Drawing upon what they describe as "a warehouse of data" (including their own Inequality Survey), they argue that there exists a broad consensus - among both Democrats and Republicans, both rich and poor - that something is wrong, and that something needs to be done. Their message, hammered home time and time again, is: "Most Americans are aware of high and increasing economic inequality. Most are unhappy about it. Most favor a wide range of concrete, pragmatic government programs when their well-being is threatened or opportunity is blocked by forces beyond their control. Most are willing to pay taxes to foot the bill."

The majority of their countrymen and women, they conclude, are at once "philosophical conservatives" and "pragmatic egalitarians".

These are bold claims. If the authors are right in their analysis, it would help to explain the impossibility of "class war" in America. It would also raise profound questions about the supposed exceptionalism of American social welfare thinking and, of course, about the quality of the country's democratic and decision-making processes. "The mystery", for Page and Jacobs, "is how politicians can get away with tax policies that are so out of harmony with the wishes of the American public."

But how convincing is their analysis? The authors offer no explanation as to what they mean by class or class consciousness (or class war). It is striking, for instance, that they use their findings about Americans' widespread recognition of, and hostility towards, economic inequality to sustain, rather than challenge, the notion that warnings about class war are "nonsense".

Moreover, the authors are perhaps a little too satisfied with the evidence they use to support their case. In attempting to uncover the state of public opinion, they draw upon "hundreds" of surveys conducted since the 1930s, the Inequality Survey that they themselves carried out in the summer of 2007, and what they describe as "the broad realm of public discourse". These sources all promise a great deal, but (as is acknowledged in 19 pages of footnotes) all pose their difficulties. The limitations of public opinion surveys are well known, and the difficulties of using letters to newspapers as voices of "everyday Americans" no less obvious. Indeed, the authors explain that the letters they cite from papers such as the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant or The Tampa Tribune have been selected not for analytical purposes but in order to make their discussion "more approachable and engaging".

Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality is, as Page and Jacobs themselves recognise, "an unusual book to come from a university press". With its sometimes folksy style and its relentlessly explicit message, this volume will not be to everybody's taste. But one should not judge it by the standards that one would normally apply to the product of a major academic publisher. It should be read, not as a carefully balanced contribution to the literature, but as a polemic, as a challenge, as a call to arms.

Class War? What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality

By Benjamin I. Page and Lawrence R. Jacobs

University of Chicago Press

160pp, £.00 and £9.00

ISBN 9780226644547 and 4554

Published 13 May 2009

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