Inter-class victim blaming is as old as politics itself. The rich blame the poor, the poor blame the rich, and everyone blames the immigrants and minorities. America is no exception to the rule that as economic prosperity declines, this element of the political discourse becomes more prominent. When the post-War boom came to a screeching halt in the 1970s, Reagan was right there to reassure the middle and upper classes that welfare queens were taking all of their money. It doesn't have to be true, only plausible. And there's nothing people with money will believe more readily than the idea that the government is taking it and giving it to poor people.
While there is an element of class conflict and blame-casting in every society, since the era of St. Ronnie we have seen some curious developments in our take on this form of rhetorical warfare. "Reagan Democrats" and other working-class whites who hopped on the GOP bandwagon in the 1980s for the first time in sixty-plus years were naturally quite receptive to the idea of using the underclass as a whipping boy, as the poor represent their primary economic and social threat. I mean, a white guy working in a screen door factory had to grapple with the reality that any person on "welfare" could and might take his job if not sufficiently vilified and beaten down. Slashing the social safety net was a self-defense mechanism for working-class whites, widening the gap with their economic competitors under the guise of small government rhetoric.
But then the right got all of the possible political mileage out of the poor and the welfare queens, it needed to find a new enemy. The Unions were a logical target, being a great irritant to the plutocracy since the 1930s. Suddenly "Reagan Democrats" found themselves on the receiving end of the politics of vilification. They were more than happy to hop on the "Let's blame the poor" bandwagon and suddenly the tables were turned. Before they knew what happened they became the malingerers, the leeches bleeding The Deserving dry. This too was successful, as middle class suburbanites gladly threw their lot in with Management to present a united front against the new enemy. You know what happened next: NAFTA, deregulation, and the end of blue collar industry in the United States.
Now the definition of who is a good, hard-working American deserving of wealth and, conversely, who is the drain thereupon is once again changing with the times. Having dispatched the poor and the working class (largely by setting them upon one another as Jay Gould boasted about so many years earlier) it has become necessary to move one more step up the ladder and vilify the middle class. Now the leeches and deadbeats are the petit bourgeoise. Civil servants. Teachers. Middle management. Basically anyone with a pension or benefits beyond a salary are destroying the country. And once again people who were integral to the previous wave of Blaming have become the Blamed. America is falling apart because your aunt worked at the County Clerk's office for 30 years and now wants a pension. Because of your daughter bought a house and then got laid off. Because of all the people incessantly whining about how they need health insurance or doing things like getting cancer when they don't have it. Because of people who insist that they actually need Social Security rather than just living off of their stocks and bonds in retirement.
That people can't recognize this progression is unsurprising and surprising at the same time. On the one hand, we know that Americans are politically ignorant and selfish enough to be OK with whatever negative things happen as long as it happens to someone else. On the other, the pattern that has been unfolding over the past three decades is just so bleedingly obvious – systematically eliminating one social class at a time to further the interests of the economic elite – that I struggle to understand how anyone could fail to notice it by now. Then they came for me, and there was no one left…