In the heat of this political campaign season, some candidates seem willing to make just about any claim about an opponent if they think it will garner a few votes. It’s no surprise that this trend is most evident in the U.S. Senate nail-biter between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle.
This whatever-works strategy can lead to positions that may not be consistent with the candidate’s fundamental political views. Take, for instance, Angle’s comment during the recent debate in which she wondered how Reid had become so wealthy considering he grew up amid modest means in Searchlight and has received a government paycheck for many years. Angle followed up this loaded insinuation with television ads smacking Reid for “living large in the D.C. Ritz-Carlton,” while the rest of us suffer through layoffs and foreclosures.
Angle’s attacks would make sense if she were a socialist.
Socialists are believers in class war — the ideology that political change occurs through conflicts between the bourgeoisie (industrialists) and the proletariat (workers). A central tenet of socialism is the elimination of income inequality, famously described by Karl Marx with the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
Angle’s attacks on Reid’s wealth echo the rhetoric of socialists and progressives over the past 150 years. Eugene Debs, America’s most famous socialist, railed against the rich, accusing them of profiting on the backs of the working man. Defending himself at his sedition trial during World War I, Debs delivered an impassioned speech against “the powers of greed”:
“I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul. . . .”
This is classic stuff if you’re a socialist. But Angle is a conservative, and not just any conservative. She’s a Tea Party-endorsed champion of the far right. One would think, then, that Angle believes in free-market capitalism — a philosophy that says there’s nothing at all wrong with getting rich, that, in fact, it’s a virtue. And so, rather than attacking Reid for living in nice quarters and possessing a healthy bank account, she would praise or at least respect him for this financial success.
Angle adds a layer to her message by suggesting that Reid somehow nefariously used his position as a U.S. senator to become wealthy. Not only is there meager evidence of this, but Angle conveniently ignores the fact that Reid earned a law degree as part of his rise up the financial ladder. It takes a long time and a lot of sacrifice to obtain the professional degree and pass the bar exam. The time-honored payoff for this effort is a career that pays well. Many lawyers make a handsome living, giving them the means to invest in money-making ventures.
This, in a nutshell, is what Reid did. He worked hard to become a successful lawyer, and then he invested in real estate in a community that, at the time, offered myriad opportunities to build an impressive bank account. Luck probably was involved, as well as connections. From the perspective of the free-market capitalist, Reid is under no obligation to restrain his pursuit of wealth, nor should there be any penalty for his having become rich.
Yet Angle, like a good socialist, attacks Reid’s bourgeois lodgings and his “windfall” from a real estate deal. It’s difficult to understand, until you realize that the goal in politics is to win.
What’s particularly intriguing to me is that Angle’s campaign handlers decided that class warfare would be a wise strategy at the campaign’s 11th hour. What does this say about the voters they want to attract? Is it a case of wanting to drag a few Democrats to Angle’s side, or is it that Tea Partiers aren’t quite as libertarian as commonly portrayed?
I’d say the latter. The Tea Party is long on unfocused anger and short on a consistent philosophy. It wants to reduce the size of government but keep Social Security, Medicare and the military fully intact. It decries Wall Street’s behavior yet doesn’t support regulations. It constantly bellows “Freedom!” yet wants to outlaw abortions and dictate Manhattan zoning policy.
In light of these and other inconsistencies, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that Angle’s attacks on Reid’s wealth are reminiscent of class war rhetoric. But I’d bet a million bucks that if you asked Angle about the alarming rise of income inequality in this country, about the vast gap between the top 1 percent and “the men in the mills and factories,” she’d shrug and say something about letting the market take its course.
Geoff Schumacher (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday.