The Public Eye: 2010: America Held Hostage

By Bob Burnett
Monday January 03, 2011 - 05:04:00 PM

If you were out of the United States for most of the year, or rely upon the mainstream media for all your “information,” you missed the big news of 2010: we’re having a class war and greed is winning. To get their way, the rich are holding working Americans hostage. 

In September, new Census figures showed the income gap between America's richest and poorest was the widest on record: "The top-earning 20 percent of Americans - those making more than $100,000 each year - received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent earned by those below the poverty line [15 percent]." It’s one example of what Senator Bernie Sanders called “a war against the working families of America.” 

This is not a covert action. Every day there’s a headline that some giant corporation had record profits and their executives got enormous bonuses; often on the same page there’s another story about record unemployment or middle-class folks who lost their homes to foreclosure. The question is why nobody but Bernie Sanders, and a few brave progressives, are willing to talk about our class war. 

There are three explanations. One is that it’s become politically incorrect to talk about class warfare In the US. By shouting “class warfare” every time progressives tried to raise taxes for the rich, conservatives have done an effective job of robbing the phrase of its potency. As a result, many Democrats – including the POTUS – run away from any suggestion that this country is turning into a plutocracy and regard it as too “radical” to suggest that Republicans are engaging in class warfare, holding Americans hostage. 

Another explanation is that the conservative media has become so powerful that most commentators on mainstream outlets like CNN and THE NEW YORK TIMES are afraid to mention the systematic war on working families waged by America’s power elite. It’s a subject that’s not popular with rich media CEOs. And, when pundits do write about this subject, they get a slew of angry mail suggesting they are (gasp!) a “socialist.” 

But the third and most troubling explanation is that our fellow citizens suffer from a collective psychosis: Americans think the US can’t operate without the rich and so they are, in effect, protecting them. 

Groucho Marx told a joke about a man who complains to a psychiatrist, “My brother thinks he’s a chicken.” The shrink responds, “That’s terrible! Why don’t you tell him the truth?” The man answers, “I would, but we need the eggs.” 

Americans don’t tell the truth about the class war because we believe we need the “eggs.” As a nation we’ve developed Stockholm syndrome and fallen under the spell of our captors. We’ve succumbed to the Republican message machine. 

Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, famously said: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” That’s what’s happened to our national discussion of economic policy, Republicans have sold the big lie to the American people. 

Multiple times every day, GOP talking heads claim “government is the problem” not a broken economic system. Republican shills also contend “trickle-down economics works,” that rich folks buying diamonds and Ferraris catalyzes the consumer economy. It doesn’t – it’s part of the problem – but average Americans don’t see that. They believe that if Rush Limbaugh pays higher taxes it will hurt the economy because he won’t be able to buy as many Arturo Fuente cigars. We’ve fallen in love with the folks running the prison. Rush Limbaugh fans want to be just like him. 

While the US is being looted, many American are content to sit in front of their TV and watch American Idol or a similar show that suggests if you are lucky, you too can join the ranks of the rich and famous. Not only are we not angry at the rich, we want to be like them! 

What can we do to snap America out of its trance and reverse our nation’s disastrous course? Obviously, those of us who have the stomach for it can continue to write about the class war, tell the truth about what’s happening to our beloved country. But what’s really needed is a coordinated progressive message campaign to counter the evil Republican spinmeisters. That’s what linguists George Lakoff and Drew Westen have been suggesting for two years. We need to counter the Republican spinmeisters with our own 24/7 message: “Your brother is not a chicken! You don’t need the eggs, they’re poison!” 

But a positive message starts with a clear statement of what we are for: A fair economy that works for everyone, not just the rich and powerful. An economy where everyone works, where full employment is more important than record profits. An economy that promotes democracy, not hostage taking. This is an economy that operates from the moral basis proposed by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “The care of human life and happiness… is the first and only legitimate object of good government."  

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at