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James Madison Declares Class Warfare on the One Percent

January 19, 2012

Today’s Campaign Stops blog entry, posted by Kevin Kruse, uses a Mitt Romney quote to riff about the origin and motivation for Congress’s insertion in 1954 of “under God” into the pledge of allegiance.  Here’s the Romney quotation:

“When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus 1 percent, you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.”

A side point before getting to my main point:  just as a factual matter, is Romney correct in associating President Obama with the 99 percent/1 percent paradigm that the Occupy movement has popularized?  If anyone has an Obama quotation approving of the 99 percent/1 percent divide, please send it along.  And if there is no explicit Obama approval of the 99 percent/1 percent hypothesis, anyone with an argument that Obama has implicitly endorsed it, please send that along as well.

Now to my main point.  The notion that division of the American public is contrary to the “one nation under God” language in our pledge of allegiance, and therefore is presumably unpatriotic, is disturbing.  It’s also revolutionary – or, maybe more accurately, it’s counter-revolutionary.

Our Founding Fathers planned for us to be divided.  The Founders knew that people work hard to further their own interests, and they knew that different people’s interests are different.  They also knew that we would gather in what Madison called “factions” to advance our interests.  So they devised a constitutional system of checks and balances, a federalist system dividing power between the federal and state governments, and a representative democracy to moderate the power of the majority over the minority.  Founders dealt with factions not by pretending to banish them, but by structuring our government to maintain our freedoms in spite of them.

So my view of it is that we fought a revolution and wrote a constitution to free us to express our differences, not to suppress our differences.  We hold democratic elections to allow our differing voices to be heard.  And we govern ourselves through complicated constitutional mechanisms that provide for resolution of those differences.  So the notion that acknowledging divisions among the public is unpatriotic is really pretty silly.

I have a really big beef with Romney’s accusation that Occupy’s 99 percent/1 percent rhetoric is “class warfare.”  (The idea is hardly original with Romney, but he’s the one who said it in today’s New York Times, so I’m picking on him.)  It is not, apparently, “class warfare” to enact policies that disproportionately benefit the rich; it is only “class warfare” to point out that those policies  disproportionately benefit the rich.

Romney’s answer to that would probably be that our laws do not favor the rich, and that the rich got rich entirely by their own merit and hard work.  That’s a whole other subject, but suffice it here to observe that our laws permit a person to inherit money that someone else earned, allowing the heir to become rich without any effort or merit at all, except the effort of being born and the merit of being born to rich parents.

Madison himself said that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.  Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”  Evidently, Mitt Romney would say that James Madison – the slaveholding plantation owner, sipping Madeira in his breeches and powdered wig – James Madison was engaged in unpatriotic class warfare when he wrote that in Essay No. 10 of the Federalist Papers.

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