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Presidentiality: ‘Class warfare?’

“Presidentiality” is a weekly web series with Need to Know correspondent Win Rosenfeld that dissects what the candidates are saying, doing and promising on the campaign trail. Each week, “Presidentiality” deconstructs the candidates’ rhetoric through the lenses of historical precedent, economic theory and science.

As part of his plan to close the nation’s spiraling budget deficit, President Obama has called for a new tax on millionaires, a so-called “Buffett rule,” named after the wealthy investor Warren Buffett. As Buffet has noted, high-earners often pay lower percentages of their income in taxes than middle-class Americans, because they make most of their money from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than salary. Obama is proposing that wealthy Americans pay at least the same rate as the rest of the country.

Republicans, who are ideologically opposed to tax hikes, have resisted that proposal, saying it would make unemployment worse by punishing the business owners who invest in the economy and create jobs. And in their campaign to kill the president’s measure, Republicans have revived an old epithet: “class warfare.”

The president’s critics have accused him of using the millionaire’s tax as a wedge to pit working-class Americans against higher-earners in order to win votes. Presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain have both accused Obama of waging “class warfare,” and when asked whether there was any chance the Buffet rule could pass the House, Speaker John Boehner told Fox News, “I don’t think I would describe class warfare as leadership.”

The current debate over tax fairness and America’s growing wealth gap is indeed polarizing. But does it qualify as class warfare? There have been periods of considerable strife in America, when wealth was concentrated in relatively few hands and inequality spurred violent clashes between workers and business owners. America does indeed have a history of fighting over class — but those fights have been much bloodier than they are today.