When Republican candidates warn that highlighting the issue of rising income-and-wealth disparity could stir up “class warfare,” they are absolutely right. So far, thankfully, the issue has not prompted any serious violence. The Occupy Wall Street movement has been basically peaceful, aiming successfully to bring to public attention the accumulation of wealth by the top 1 percent of Americans versus the remaining 99 percent. But history suggests a huge rich-poor gap can be a factor leading to political discontent and worse.
One old history textbook, referring to the 1789 French Revolution and its Reign of Terror that cost many of the royal family and nobility their heads at the guillotine, notes “mob violence was the natural outcome of centuries of oppression of the poor by the rich.” The French Revolution had enormous influence across Europe, eventually bringing political, social, educational, and economic betterment for the bottom 99 percent and weakening the aristocracy.
Of course, today’s poor Americans are far better off than the peasants and serfs of old Europe. And Americans nowadays have a relatively calm and unexcitable political character. They also have a higher average income than most citizens of big European nations. But the United States also has a higher rate of income inequality than Europe.
Up to now, the rich aren’t being attacked in a vicious manner, thank goodness. But the mood could change if Republicans continue to insist that taxes not be raised on the well-to-do and that Congress cut government spending benefiting the poor and middle class to reduce the deficit. Certainly the rich-poor gap could cost Republicans many a vote later this year – though not their heads.