Class war? 52% say U.S. isn’t divided economically, poll finds

President Obama and Republicans are trading jabs over the phrase “class war” in dealing with the nation’s struggling economy, but a slight majority of Americans reject the idea of a country divided between haves and have-nots, according to a poll released on Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Washington Post.

According to the survey, 52% said it was wrong to think of the United States divided between those who economically have and those who are lacking. Still, 45% said that such a division, part of the basis for the historic definition of class and class war, was appropriate.

Shortly after Obama took office, the percentage of Americans who saw society as divided between haves and have-nots declined. In April 2009, 35% said the nation was divided economically, down from 44% in October 2008, just before the election that hinged in part on the candidates’ response to a plummeting economy. The number saying the nation is economically divided increased to 42% a year later and has remained relatively the same since, according to the poll.

Just under half, 48% said that if they were forced to choose they would call themselves among the haves, while 34% said they are among the have-nots. While about the same in recent years, the number seeing themselves in the have-not category has doubled from 17% in 1988 to 34% in the latest poll.


The division between those who have and those who lack has been one of history’s best indicators of the political stability of societies. Whether feudal or industrial, societies that have become too divided by wealth have been unstable, as both Robin Hood and Karl Marx demonstrated. Even today, many people look at the large numbers of young in the Third World who are unemployed as a way of explaining the wave of unrest sweeping through the Islamic areas.

When Obama proposed his jobs plan coupled with tax increases for the wealthy, Republicans were quick to respond, accusing the president of trying to redistribute wealth and of launching class war against the rich. Obama has fired back in a series of campaign-style appearances during which he embraced the GOP criticism, then tried to turn it on its head as a plus for Democrats seeking to mobilize poor and middle-class votes.

“Now, the Republicans, when I talked about this earlier in the week, they said, well, this is class warfare,” Obama said last week in a stop in Cincinnati. “You know what, if asking a billionaire to pay their fair share of taxes, to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare, then you know what, I’m a warrior for the middle class. I’m happy to fight for the middle class. I’m happy to fight for working people. Because the only warfare I’ve seen is the battle against the middle class over the last 10, 15 years.”

According to the Pew/Washington Post poll, Americans by 2 to 1, 29% to 15%, said they think the Obama administration does more to help the have-nots than to help the haves; about 45% said they believe Obama treats both groups about equally.

That is strikingly differently to how Americans see congressional Republicans. About 47% of Americans said they see congressional Republicans as helping the haves while just 7% said the GOP is mostly helping the have-nots; 32% said Republicans are treating both groups the same.