The Industrial Revolution, he said, had unleashed new forces in society that had been used to deprive most people of economic freedom even while leaving their political freedom intact. "A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor—other people's lives." He saw the task of democracy as wresting back the ill-gotten power of the ultra-wealthy few, and pledged to be "enlisted for the duration of the war."

Shortly after FDR's re-election in 1936, a New York Times editorial read, "No cry was more often heard in the Presidential campaign, or was more bitter, than the warning that this country stood face to face with a war between classes" by people who "charged that the New Deal had developed, whether it intended to or not, class hatred in the United States to a degree and intensity never before dreamed of here." It concluded that given the election results, such rhetoric was "quite needless and a little ridiculous."

It was indeed during the 1930s that conservatives began attaching the term "class warfare" to liberal social and economic policies.

Senator Robert Taft, an early leader of the modern conservative movement, believed the constitutional property rights of the wealthy should be protected against federal regulation, taxation, and labor unions. He saw it as more important to preserve the economic freedom of business owners than to secure equality of opportunity for everyone.

Taft put together a coalition of wealthy conservatives called the Liberty League, which aimed to paint New Deal initiatives as communistic. "The dragon teeth of class warfare are being sown with a vengeance," they said of FDR's anti-big-business stance.

It was a warning that the bloody class warfare reported from Europe—manifested most ominously in the Soviet Union but found throughout the European continent—could easily spill over into the United States. The use of the term "class warfare" would shift after World War II, when the two world powers clashed over their ideologies, capitalism and communism.

Class in the Cold War Era

The splendid economic position of the U.S. at the end of the war increased both plutocrats' profits and workers' wages. The rising tide really did lift all boats.

Harry S Truman, who became president when FDR died in office in 1945 and narrowly won a second term in 1948, mostly supported the equalizing tenets of the New Deal. But a Republican Congress overrode Truman's veto of the (Robert) Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which repealed many of the New Deal victories labor unions had won.

"The New Deal, and now the Fair Deal, is patterned line for line from the Marxist Manifesto of shameful class warfare, out-and-out exploitation of one group in favor of another in return for votes," said Republican congressman Ralph Gwinn in 1949.

Campaigning for the White House in 1951, Dwight Eisenhower preached government cooperation with labor unions as a way to avoid class warfare. "Class warfare has too many times brought about the enslavement of labor in once free lands," he said. The American brand of trade unionism, he said, was about "competition" rather than "class warfare," a distinction that had ensured the success of both workers and industry in the United States.

Although an ever-hardening bloc of conservatives deplored Eisenhower's moderation on issues such as labor, the president was known for hobnobbing with the elite. He appointed a number of business executives to his cabinet and cut government spending by about 10 percent, formulating in 1954 tax cuts that mainly benefited corporations and wealthy individuals.

In 1955 Democrats called the Republican party "the aggressor" in a campaign of class warfare that favored corporations and the very wealthy at the expense of wage earners.

Party national chairman Paul Butler said, "there is no more harmful way of fomenting class warfare than for a political party—or a government operated by that party—to favor one group of its citizens at the expense of others, and that is what the Republican party is doing today and has done for a good many years." The report cited Eisenhower as saying that if all that Americans wanted was security, they could go to prison.

On a television interview in 1963, conservative commentator William F. Buckley said, "I think the graduated income tax is an institutional form of continuing class warfare." He said lawmakers wanted to "penalize people for making a lot of money."

In 1963, Barry Goldwater said the mood of the country was turning conservative. Americans had seen "the grand design of an all-powerful central government turn into a red-tape jungle … socialist and collectivist theories turn into open war against business and industry … radicalism turn into class warfare."

Goldwater was wrong, and suffered a stinging electoral defeat. But his and other conservatives' framing of Democrats and class war simmered through the 1960s.

Discussing class warfare in the Cold-War era could lead to accusations of Marxist, socialist, and communist leanings.

For a long time, Democrats junked the talk about corporate fat cats and taxing the wealthy that had rallied workers and farmers in the first half of the century. After pushing through John F. Kennedy's civil rights reforms, Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty that aided the very lowest socioeconomic classes. He focused on the bottom one-fifth, appealing to the prosperous working, middle, and upper percentile earners to support the struggling Americans at the very bottom.

Johnson's focus on poverty—think "bottom fifth" rather than "99 percent"—was one way of pursuing New Deal-era social goals without invoking the rhetoric of big-business distrust.

Enthusiasm for expensive social programs soured along with the economy through the 1970s, and many historians have claimed that opponents of Johnson's "Great Society" linked them to racial divisions as well. Tropes such as Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen," which he first mentioned in 1976, fostered a vision of hardworking whites shouldering the burden of lazy, untrustworthy minorities.

Class warfare broke into headlines in 1978 when labor leaders, frustrated with Congress blocking labor law reform and angry at President Jimmy Carter's inability help, gave up on passing legislation in a flurry of angry protest. AFL-CIO president George Meany said business interests had "joined with the right-wing anti-labor forces, which are opposed to anything for labor, opposed to anything that would help minorities, opposed to anything that would make life a little better for the people in the inner cities. And I think it is part of a class warfare."

Frustrated UAW president Douglas Fraser resigned his post with the Labor Management Group, set up under Nixon to work out labor-management solutions and advise the White House. He told the press business leaders had waged a "one-sided class war" against society's less privileged members. "I would rather sit with the rural poor, the desperate children of urban blight, the victims of racism, and working people seeking a better life than with those whose religion is the status quo, whose goal is profit and whose hearts are cold," he said.

Reagan and "Big Government"

It would be nearly impossible to overstate the importance of Reagan's presidency in changing American attitudes about the relationships among big business, voting citizens, and the federal government. Instead of a democratically empowered majority of working masses setting policies to keep concentrated wealth in check, Reagan pitted the masses against "big government."

Reagan recast the enemy in the populist argument against entrenched power: not monopolies, trusts, or capital, but the federal government. "Farmers have to fight insects, weather, and the marketplace; they shouldn't have to fight their own government," he said in 1984.

He blamed economic hardship on Democratic programs, stating that "confiscatory taxes, costly social experiments, and economic tinkering" had cost the country dearly.

"We are going to put an end to the money merry-go-round where our money becomes Washington's money, to be spent by the states and cities exactly the way the federal bureaucrats tell them to," he said in 1980. But he did pour money into national defense, which he reportedly said "doesn't count" when trying to balance the budget.

Reagan gutted social programs and implemented a 25 percent reduction in income tax, including a reduction in the top tax rate from 70 to 50 percent. As part of his budget-slashing, Reagan dismantled Great Society programs and caught flack for waging "war on the poor," a phrase used in an open letter from religious leaders protesting the cuts in 1984.

During a presidential debate in 1984, Walter Mondale challenged Reagan on income tax fairness using George Bush as an example. "He's one of the wealthiest Americans, and he's our vice president," Mondale said. "In 1981 I think he paid about 40 percent in taxes. In 1983, as a result of [Reagan's] tax preferences, he paid a little over 12 percent, 12.8 percent in taxes. That meant that he paid a lower percent in taxes than the janitor who cleaned up his office or the chauffeur who drives him to work."

Reagan's optimism and charisma helped ensure his immense popularity. The 1980s hosted a cultural shift toward conspicuous consumption and the "greed is good" credo immortalized in the 1987 film "Wall Street." Forbes magazine first published its Forbes 400 list in 1982.

The Arguments Now

As conservative control lingered into the current century, liberals continued to invert the charge of "class warfare" by criticizing the ability of corporations to purchase favors through expensive lobbying and to push through even more favorable tax terms for the super-rich.

On the campaign trail in 2000, Al Gore called George W. Bush's tax plan "class warfare on behalf of billionaires." In 2003, journalist Bill Moyers said, "The corporate right and the political right declared class warfare on working people a quarter of a century ago, and they won." Economist Paul Krugman said Bush-era policies comprise warfare "for the richagainst the middle class."

In October 2011, Mitt Romney told a group of retirees in Florida that the Occupy Wall Street protests were dangerous "class warfare," while his competitors for the Republican nomination leveled the same charge at Obama. Newt Gingrich said the president was "so committed to class warfare and so committed to bureaucratic socialism that he can't possibly be effective in [creating] jobs," while Rick Santorum refuted Obama's "class-warfare arguments" by saying, "There are no classes in America."

Karl Rove has been accusing Obama of waging "class warfare" at least since 2009. A former top advisor to George W. Bush and now political commentator for Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, Rove is renowned for his influence over public discourse. An engineer and bristly defender of the Bush tax cuts, Rove warned against Obama's fomentations in a number of recent editorials.

But Rove's efforts to turn public opinion against the principles of the Occupy Wall Street movement through painting it as "socialist" and "kooky" fell flat. It has become apparent to both candidates that voters are interested in policies that would narrow rather than further widen the wealth gap.

Rove is widely reported to have modeled himself on Mark Hanna, the crafty industrialist who managed McKinley's campaign and was widely maligned as a big-money puppeteer. (A Raleigh, N.C. newspaper editor called Hanna "an industrial cannibal … a vindictive foe of organized labor. He has crushed union after union among the thousands of his own employees.") In 2003, Moyers talked about this relationship, in which George W. Bush played the modern-day part of capital-friendly McKinley.

Contemporary commentators are fond of comparing Obama to Bryan (see recent articles in the American Spectator and the New Republic), whether to speculate that Obama can't win by appealing to the masses or to ask, as Bryan did, about the fundamental aims of the Democratic party.

Pundits recently revived the New Nationalism speech because Obama chose the same spot in December 2011 to deliver his first considered reply to Occupy Wall Street. Substituting Roosevelt's "square deal" with his "fair shot," he pointed to the shrinking middle class. Increasing inequality, he said, "distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder." Roosevelt's sentiments, almost exactly.

If, as in Marx's original formulation, conflict between workers and capital is inevitable, what should be the role of government? Conservatives would recast the workers' enemy, big business, as "big government." Liberals are more apt to see the function of government as making sure the economically disadvantaged are cared for in spite of massive power imbalances in a capitalist society.

As fears of communism and socialism fade into the past, and as more Americans identify with class issues, the meanings of the term "class warfare" have become even more muddled. The barb has been especially confounding because it sticks in both directions. If we are genuinely interested in finding ways to address economic inequality, we should search for better ways as a national community to talk about the relations between our socioeconomic classes.