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Class warfare. War on teachers. War on business. War in America?

Based on all the 'wars' partisan politicians claim their opponents are waging on innocent parts of America, it's a wonder any of us are still alive. The 'war' metaphor may win media coverage and rile voters, but it excludes the kind of debate that can actually solve problems.

By Jeremy Shapiro / September 23, 2011


It is a common observation that American political discourse has become rife with hyperbole and hostility. Fierce partisans on both the left and right, not content to simply point out errors in each others' reasoning, frequently accuse each other of outright malevolence. This enraged tone is epitomized by the frequency with which policies and proposals are said to represent “wars” on various innocent sectors of society.

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While the “war” metaphor may win media coverage and rile voters, it prevents Americans from having the type of debate that could lead to more effective responses to our society’s problems.

The length of the following list of examples, which was culled from mainstream politicians and commentators using simple Google searches, illustrates the extent of this phenomenon.

The left accuses the right of waging: The right accuses the left of waging
War on the poor Class warfare
War on working people War on business
War on the middle class War on the middle class (yes, both)
War on immigrants War on savers
War on the family War on the family (again, both)
War on children War on marriage
War on the elderly War on the American way of life
War on public employees War on religion
War on teachers War on Christmas

It’s a miracle any of us are still alive! Taken at face value, this partisan rhetoric claims there are wars being waged against virtually all Americans, with most of us being attacked on multiple fronts. Obviously this rhetoric is absurd, but the war talk is worth delving into because it is absurd in specific ways that have serious consequences.

Let us clarify what this particular war metaphor is not. It is different from the metaphor of war on social ills such as poverty, drugs, and terrorism. Warfare might be a simplistic model for these efforts, but we really do want to eliminate poverty, drug abuse, and terrorism, so in this sense, it is fair to say that we are waging war against them. However, the notion that any mainstream political faction is actually trying to harm the middle class, children, or the institution of marriage is not just simplistic but preposterous and grotesque.

The problem is not simply one of exaggeration. If it were, the distortion would be quantitative, but this distortion is qualitative. If partisans viewed their opponents as well intentioned but sadly mistaken in their beliefs, they could exaggerate by calling the other side uninformed, unreasonable, ignorant, stupid, or even idiotic.

The war metaphor means something different; it says opponents are not well intentioned but are engaged in a purposeful attempt to harm. Opponents might even be described as smart – in their intentional campaign to destroy segments of the American population and way of life.


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