There are "two Americas," according to former Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. One is prosperous and affluent, with well-stuffed stock portfolios, good schools, and generous healthcare programs. But the other America is poor, underprivileged, and insecure. To big applause, Mr. Edwards promised to "fight" to close that gap.
We are likely to hear more of that kind of rhetoric, with Howard Dean crowned as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. The notion that Republican policies favor the privileged while neglecting the needs of the little guy is a constant theme of liberal politicians and pundits.
Such class warfare talk does not resonate well with most Americans, though. Karl Marx set the categories for the left with his paradigm of the "bourgeoisie" oppressing the "workers." But, contrary to his expectations, free-market capitalism has created so much wealth that today "workers" enjoy a middle class (that is, "bourgeois") lifestyle. The problem today is not with workers but with the relatively small 4 percent who do not have work. American social mobility and affluence renders Marxist-flavored invocations of class struggle absurd.
But let us grant Mr. Edwards's "two Americas" premise. Clearly, some people are well-off and others are struggling to pay their bills. What, if anything, can or should be done about this? The strategy of President Bush is to cut struggling Americans in on the prosperity-enhancing benefits enjoyed by the well-off.
His Social Security plan would allow "the other Americans" to build a stock portfolio, an ownership share of wealth-producing companies, just like the "rich" have. Americans who do not have a lot of money to save would nevertheless cash in on free-enterprise capitalism. One would think the left would see this as a way to make the economic system more "fair," as they are always calling for. After all, the socialist dream is for "the people" to "own the means of production."
The children of privileged Americans have access to good education, while poor children are often consigned to public schools with abysmal academics, out-of-control classrooms, and violence in the schoolyard. Conservatives propose "school choice," which uses a small share of education dollars to allow poor children to go to private schools. Just like the wealthy do. And yet, school-choice programs are anathema to most Democrats (except for minority families who want their kids to get a good education so they can join the ranks of the well-off).
Affluent Americans have good healthcare insurance, usually as a job benefit, so that when they get sick, their expenses are mostly covered. But many Americans in lower-paying jobs or who are unemployed lack health insurance. What is the solution? Conservative programs try to find ways to help them get health insurance like well-off Americans, either by subsidizing benefits from low-wage small businesses or through other programs to insure those without jobs. Liberal programs, in contrast, want to socialize medicine for everyone. If the liberals had their way, everyone would have to wait in line in impersonal healthcare clinics, such as those sometimes provided for poor people.
Why wouldn't liberals want to give lower-income people some of the same benefits that well-off people have? Isn't that a way to close the gap between "the two Americas"?
Underlying the policy disputes are worldview issues. The left tends to assume that free-enterprise capitalism is a bad thing, something immoral and intrinsically unfair. The privileged America should not be emulated, but reined in. Even though most liberals are themselves in the privileged class, they tend to feel guilty about it and try to redeem themselves with benevolent attitudes and political ideology on behalf of "the poor." Conservatives, on the other hand, believe in free-enterprise economics and want more people to reap its benefits.
The left would prefer to have both Americas dependent upon the state. The government would provide for the less well-off. And the affluent too would be dependent upon the mercy of the government, which would control businesses with regulations and confiscate wealth by means of taxes.
That is to say, in the liberal universe, there are actually three Americas: the rich, the poor, and the coalition of politicians, intelligentsia, and bureaucrats who constitute the ruling class.