The divisiveness of an appeal to class warfare should be upsetting to everybody.

Fortunately, the ugly rhetoric of class warfare historically hasn’t worked that well in the U.S., a nation built on notions of decency and opportunity. But politicians from time to time resort to this bitter tactic.

Paul Rahe, a professor at Hillsdale College and author of numerous books on political theory, has penned a fascinating piece on Ricochet  comparing two politicians who made this appeal—nearly forgotten New York mayor John Lindsay and President Obama. He is interested in the fate of the similar coalitions the two put together.

Both men were handsome, glamourous, well-connected Ivy Leaguers who went into tough campaigns for reelection with low polling numbers and high budget deficits. Lindsay had the WASP elite on his side but he also needed to split off another segment of voters:  

To win election and re-election as Mayor, he had to hold onto that constituency, split the Democratic Party, and win over one of the more substantial elements composing it. This he did by driving a wedge between working-class and lower middle class whites, on the one hand, and African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, on the other – and he managed to attract support from the latter by massively expanding the welfare rolls and increasing dramatically the patronage that found its way into their hands. To secure his re-election, Lindsay was prepared to bring the city to its knees.

Sound familiar?

Rahe says that “we should not be surprised to learn that the leaders of the Democratic Party have decided to follow John Lindsay in writing off the white working class.” The Democrats seem to be putting together a coalition of upscale voters and folks who look to government for support (plus many who are impressed by glamour).

Rahe says that the Obama administration’s distance from the concerns of ordinary working stiffs can be seen in many actions, including the decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline that could have provided jobs to an estimated 120,000 of them.

Lindsay's coalition didn't last long. Rahe thinks that the current Democratic coalition may also be transitory. Here is why:

The material interests of upscale voters and those of Americans dependent on government largesse do not coincide, and in a time of straitened circumstances and widespread unemployment the tensions between those who pay the bulk of the taxes collected and those on the take are apt to be extreme.

How many upscale voters want to see their taxes dramatically increased in the near future?

It may not be bread alone that determines voting patterns in the US, but during economic downturns such concerns loom especially large.

Rahe can see the emergence of a new coalition with staying power:

I could easily imagine a new coalition taking shape – one that unites upscale voters, working stiffs, and small businessmen against public-sector workers and those who live off government patronage.

Such a coalition, forged in a time of suffering, might last a very long time, and, if it did, the number of public-sector workers and of those living off government patronage would steadily decline.

If you walk in certain parts of Washington, D.C. (and indeed almost any town of any size), you realize from reading the names on the buildings just how massive and redundant government has become.

Instead of “asking” millionaires and billionaires to pay more taxes to enlarge the behemoth further, we need policies that create a thriving private sector. That is the sector that produces revenue instead of merely eating it up in ever larger bites.

Many thanks to ace Commentary blogger John Steele Gordon for tipping me on the Rahe article.