Nineteenth century industrialist and robber baron Jay Gould boasted, “I can hire one half the working class to kill the other half."
Gould’s boast came at a time when industrialists could rely on police and state militia to suppress striking workers, killing them if necessary.
In 1892, Henry Frick, Andrew Caregie’s general manager, hired Pinkertons to attack strikers at Carnegie’s steelworks in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Seven PInkertons and nine workers were killed in the violent confrontation.
The 1870s through the 1890s marked an era of industrial growth accompanied by urban poverty and concentrated wealth. In 1890, 1 percent of Americans owned 44 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 44 percent owned 1.4 percent.
In 2007, the latest year for which we have data, the wealthiest 0.01 percent of Americans own 34.6 percent of our country’s wealth while the bottom 90 percent owns 26.9 percent.
Are we headed for the same confrontation as our forebears?
In the Eisenhower years, the top 1 percent had a tax rate of 91 percent; in the Reagan years the same group paid a 50 percent rate. Today it is 36 percent. When Democrats and critics of current tax rates say that the rich and super rich should pay a higher rate, right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity accuse them of waging “class warfare.”
Rick Perry invoked the phrase “class warfare” when speaking of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. The phrase has become a handy slogan, invoked to obscure the issues underlying income inequality and serves to strengthen animosity between Americans.
If the split between Right and Left isn’t about to escalate into violence next week or next month, the pressure on both sides is mounting.
For at least two decades radio demagogues have been dividing Americans until now many place themselves in one of two political camps, each demonizing the other. In late October, Limbaugh, speaking of the Occupy Wall Street protesters said, “The country wasn’t built by an endless parade of human debris demanding things in the middle of the street while smelling and looking like urine.”
As psychologists tell us, before a normal person can kill another, he has to believe the other to be subhuman.
Limbaugh’s followers, encouraged and prompted by their standard bearer, stoutly maintain that the protesters are unemployed “lazy asses” (Limbaugh’s words) who live off welfare and don’t want jobs.
If life on the dole is just that good, then why are the protesters in the streets? Why are they willing to persist despite suffering unwarranted beatings (Oakland and New York), being tear-gassed (Oakland) or hit with pepper spray (New York)?
Hiow much longer before one side or the other initiates violence that escalates into rioting or worse?
Wealth inequality is the headliner among fractious divisions now, but fundamentalist Protestantism for years has been another powerfully corrosive force in American civic life. Like their political counterparts, fundamentalist preachers invoke fear as a means of consolidating and enlarging their collection of adherents.
Invoking the terrible image of Jehovah, they thunder that God hates gays, lesbians, abortionists, feminists, and Muslims. Jerry Falwell, a self-proclaimed man of God and founder of the Moral Majority, told us that Islam was satanic. Another unbalanced preacher, Terry Jones, conducted an international circus when first he threatened and then burnt a Koran.
Falwell proclaimed to the world that 9/11 was God’s punishment on America for tolerating abortion, feminism, lesbianism and homosexuality. Pat Robertson agreed.
Now it follows that if God hates all of the above, so should all righteous Christians. What actions might unbalanced fundamentalists take in consequence?
The language of right-wing commentators and fundamentalists draws equally angry responses from opponents. The language on both sides escalates. Each side fears the other.
The demagogues are omnipresent—on Sunday television talk shows, on radio, behind pulpits and in print. The fuses have been lit; give us another major economic jolt and the powder kegs may explode.
Fragmentation is the driving force of our time. Conflict is everywhere and extremists grab the headlines, making everyone that much more fearful of their fellows. As the poet Yeats wrote, “The centre cannot hold.”
Robert Wolf is executive director of Free River Press. He is a former Chicago Tribune columnist and author of The Triumph of Technique.