Commentary

(Class) War Won’t Work

This article originally appeared on National Review Online on April 13, 2004.
The recent mistrial in the Tyco case presents a puzzle and, perhaps, a lesson for John Kerry’s presidential prospects. Two former Tyco executives, Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz, were on trial for corporate fraud. The prosecutors made much of a $2.2 million birthday party for Kozlowski’s wife, his $32 million Park Avenue apartment, his $6,000 gold shower curtain, a $15,000 poodle-shaped umbrella stand, and his valuable collection of paintings.

Kozlowski’s prosecutors were trying to stir envy and resentment among the jurors to secure a conviction. They almost got a conviction but failed to foster class hate. At least one juror has said the Kozlowski’s wealth and conspicuous consumption were irrelevant to their deliberations.

Like the Tyco prosecutors, liberals have staked a lot on fostering envy and class resentment among American voters. They decry President Bush’s “tax cuts for the wealthy.” The Media Fund, a Democratic soft-money vehicle, ran an ad saying Bush “raided Social Security to pay for a tax cut for millionaires.” Their many attacks on corporations evoke the cant phrase “rich and powerful.” The core electoral appeal of the Left has increasingly become “the rich are evil, let’s take their wealth.”

Take Kerry’s tax proposal. He plans to raise taxes for those who make over $200,000 a year while retaining Bush’s tax cuts for everyone else and adding tax credits for middle-class families. Kerry has apparently learned the 1984 lesson of Walter Mondale who promised to raise taxes for everyone if elected president. Kerry too promises to raise taxes but only on the top one percent of American households.

That’s not much of a test of political courage. The truly rich are a small minority in a democracy that decides most issues by majority vote. The affluent, even broadly defined, make up only one third of the nation. Kerry is not the first candidate for office to endorse taxing the rich to buy the votes of a majority on Election Day. As far back as 1787, James Madison warned that such redistributions of wealth — he called them “wicked and improper projects” — might destroy the new American republic.

Yet these gestures toward class war are puzzling in several ways. In 1998, the National Election Studies survey found that about one third of the wealthiest Americans identified themselves as liberals. The rich were by far the most likely group to identify with liberalism; in fact, they are twice as likely to lean left as the poor. The liberal war on the rich will hit a lot of its soldiers with friendly fire, if they cannot find ways to shelter income.

More puzzling still, making war on the wealthy will not win many elections. The liberal concern about inequality is not widely shared in the United States. Three scholars from Harvard and the London School of Economics recently analyzed attitudes toward inequality in Europe and here. In Europe, surveys have found that inequality of wealth makes two groups unhappy: rich leftists and the poor. By contrast, only rich leftists are troubled by inequality in the United States. The three professors argue that the poor in the U.S. are not concerned about inequality of wealth because they expect to rise up the income ladder whereas Europeans feel stuck in their assigned status in society. Americans do not resent the rich; Americans want and expect to be like them thanks to social mobility. The American Dream lives on except for wealthy progressives.

Why do liberal Democrats continue to preach resentment of the rich? Maybe they think taking from Peter to buy Paul’s vote will inevitably work as an electoral strategy. Perhaps they believe Americans are foolish to believe in social mobility and individual responsibility. Maybe they believe the United States is, or should be, like Europe.

Madison was wrong. Egalitarianism seems to be a luxury good, not a majoritarian passion. Rich liberals decry inequality and despise the rich, but most Americans do not share their prejudices. This coming Election Day seems likely to bring more evidence, if more was needed, that Europeans cannot win elections in America.

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.