Paul Krugman thinks about class-war politics in American history:
Class War Politics - New York Times: By PAUL KRUGMAN: In case you haven't noticed, modern American politics is marked by vicious partisanship, with the great bulk of the viciousness coming from the right. It's clear that the Republican plan for the 2006 election is, once again, to question Democrats' patriotism.
But do Republican leaders truly believe that they are serious about fighting terrorism, while Democrats aren't? When the speaker of the House declares that "we in this Congress must show the same steely resolve as those men and women on United Flight 93," is that really the way he sees himself? (Dennis Hastert, Man of Steel!) Of course not.
So what's our bitter partisan divide really about? In two words: class warfare. That's the lesson of an important new book, "Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches," by Nolan McCarty of Princeton University, Keith Poole of the University of California, San Diego, and Howard Rosenthal of New York University.... What the book shows... is that for the past century, political polarization and economic inequality have moved hand in hand. Politics during the Gilded Age, an era of huge income gaps, was a nasty business -- as nasty as it is today. The era of bipartisanship, which lasted for roughly a generation after World War II, corresponded to the high tide of America's middle class. That high tide began receding in the late 1970's, as middle-class incomes grew slowly at best while incomes at the top soared; and as income gaps widened, a deep partisan divide re-emerged....
When the elite once again pulled away from the middle class, however, Republicans turned their back on the legacy of Dwight Eisenhower and returned to a focus on the interests of the wealthy. Tax cuts at the top -- including repeal of the estate tax -- became the party's highest priority. But if the real source of today's bitter partisanship is a Republican move to the right on economic issues, why have the last three elections been dominated by talk of terrorism, with a bit of religion on the side? Because a party whose economic policies favor a narrow elite needs to focus the public's attention elsewhere. And there's no better way to do that than accusing the other party of being unpatriotic and godless....
Pre-New Deal G.O.P. operatives followed the same strategy. Republican politicians won elections by "waving the bloody shirt" -- invoking the memory of the Civil War -- long after the G.O.P. had ceased to be the party of Lincoln and become the party of robber barons instead. Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic presidential candidate, was defeated in part by a smear campaign -- burning crosses and all -- that exploited the heartland's prejudice against Catholics.
So what should we do about all this? I won't offer the Democrats advice right now, except to say that tough talk on national security and affirmations of personal faith won't help: the other side will smear you anyway.
But I would like to offer some advice to my fellow pundits: face reality. There are some commentators who long for the bipartisan days of yore, and flock eagerly to any politician who looks "centrist." But there isn't any center in modern American politics. And the center won't return until we have a new New Deal, and rebuild our middle class.
Perhaps the advice Paul should give Democratic politicians seeking national office is that they should emulate the triangulating b------ Grover Cleveland--who pursued free trade and regulation of railroad monopolies, navy modernization and avoidance of foreign entanglements, attacked "unworthy" Republican clients--union army veterans who were claiming pensions for non-war related disabilities--and had his own Sister Souljah moment by using the U.S. army to break the Pullman strike over the objections of Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld.
Perhaps not: I've always thought Gilded Age America would have been a better place had the Eugene Debs-led Pullman strike succeeded. I've always been on the side of John Peter Altgeld and Clarence Darrow and Jane Addams.