"Class Warfare" in American History

About this Episode

Guests
Sarah Siff

In this Origins podcast of Writers Talk History, host Patrick Potyondy interviews historian Sarah Siff about the roots of "class warfare" in the United States.

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Cite this Site

Doug Dangler, Patrick R. Potyondy , ""Class Warfare" in American History" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
January, 2013
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/writers-talk-history-class-warfare-american-history?language_content_entity=en.
January, 2013

Transcript

Doug Dangler  
From the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing at The Ohio State University, this is Writers Talk. I'm  Doug Dangler. Today in conjunction with the OSU Department of History and its magazine Origins, OSU student, Patrick Potyondy talks with historian Sarah Siff about her article on class warfare published in Origins.

Patrick Potyondy  
This is Writers Talk History a partnership between Origins, an online magazine from the Ohio State history department covering current events in historical perspective and the Center for the Study and teaching of writing. Also at The Ohio State University. All Origins articles and podcasts can be accessed for free at go.osu.edu/origins. Today we're speaking with Sarah Siff, an American historian at The Ohio State history department about her recent origins article "From Karl Marx to Karl Rove: Class Warfare and American Politics." Thanks for being on the show Sarah, and welcome. 

Sarah Siff  
My pleasure. Thanks. 

Patrick Potyondy  
So how about you just start by telling us a little bit about what you wrote for Origins.

Sarah Siff  
The reason it's "From Karl Marx to Karl Rove" is I wanted to talk about this idea of class warfare as being sort of a rhetorical device that presidents use to gain electoral power. And in the beginning in the late 1800s, Karl Marx talked about class warfare, and capitalists had a lot of money, and they had a whole bunch of people working for them. And occasionally, those people would decide they had had enough of their crappy working conditions and low wages. And they would actually start overturning boxcars, and setting warehouses on fire. And so class warfare was an actual thing that happened. These days what it is a slander that often conservatives use when they want to talk about someone as redistributive, or what they would call socialist economic policies. So the story of how class warfare was used in presidential rhetoric over time is it's kind of interesting because in the two Roosevelt administrations, for example, it was okay to talk about the fact that some people had all of the wealth and a big massive people had very little and presidents would make this case that they were on the side of the masses and they would talk about how they were going to change the tax law to redistribute wealth to people who had less. And this was a very common thing to talk about. After World War Two, it became sort of a problem for new dealers. When FDR was elected for the last time, people started saying he's using all this class warfare rhetoric and he is pitting the masses against property owners. Conservatives in the early conservative movement really picked up on this idea. So people like William F. Buckley and Robert Taft started using this language to describe pro labor policies, changes in tax law, those types of things. And by the time the Reagan administration came around, something really interesting happened. No longer was the enemy, Big Business as it had been talked about for so long. But it was now big government. So the enemy sort of got switched from big business versus the people and now it was big government versus the people. And this idea had a lot of traction. People still talk about class warfare. It doesn't always necessarily apply to policies that people think are socialists. But the liberal side will say that policies that benefit the wealthy are also a form of class warfare because they are class warfare on behalf of millionaires.

Patrick Potyondy  
Do you find that Americans have a hard time talking about, quote unquote, class?

Sarah Siff  
When the Occupy Wall Street movement, all these things to public attention, people started thinking about them. And suddenly, if you're engaging in class warfare, it's not necessarily that you're the bad guy anymore. You can be the good guy like Teddy Roosevelt when he said, I'm in this fight to the end. I think the malleability of the term over time indicates that it really is hard for people to make any sense of policy when it was okay to say I'm on the side of the working class, and I'm going to go after the wealthiest people, that was kind of clear cut and maybe that time is coming back around again.

Patrick Potyondy  
Your article was, in some ways, a kind of digital media piece. I'm kind of wondering what the writing process was like for you.

Sarah Siff  
This might be a little bit controversial in terms of historical method. Well, first, I researched the topic online just by googling it. And I read wall street journal articles in New York Times articles, whatever I could find, basically on it, there was a really helpful piece on NPR about how the term class warfare was used recently. My primary sources that I used were newspaper articles that I text searched. So it's probably not too cool in the history profession to say I did my research by text searching newspaper archives. That's how I did that. And that's how I found the trends in how the term had been used. How is writing for digital media different from doing a traditional paper? And I think the answer is that you can point people to sources that are better than what you have to say about it just by linking to them. 

Patrick Potyondy  
Right, in kind of a hyperlink fashion. 

Sarah Siff  
Yeah. So that's what's unique about it. And then you can provide as much to look at as you want, and you can't do that on paper.

Patrick Potyondy  
And I know you have a background in journalism, and I'm wondering how that might have prepared you for writing a piece like this?

Sarah Siff  
Journalistic style is a little bit different from academic style of course, because when you're preparing an academic piece, you can structure your argument to build to your main point. And in journalistic writing, you want to put the most important information up front, because you know that as the piece gets longer, you're going to lose readers, one after another. So there's kind of a inverted pyramid idea in journalism, where you put the big idea at top, and then less important, less important, less important stuff. So I think in that sense, this piece is more along the lines of creating an argument, but it's also important to say things that people will understand if they are not historians.

Patrick Potyondy  
An interesting way to kind of think about the process of writing through that and have your graduate studies, you're a PhD student in the history department here at OSU. I'm wondering if your graduate studies in history have prepared you for only specific types of writing or if they've developed you as a writer overall?

Sarah Siff  
History as a discipline has the most variety in the style of writing of just about any discipline that I've done any significant amount of reading and in some cases, you get people who present all of their theory up front, and they'll talk in the first person. On the other hand, you get a lot of really exciting writers who are almost philosophical from the very beginning and are, you know, talking about really deep things. So, it's, there's a, there's a huge variety of history is sort of classically told in a narrative format, in chronological order. And, you know, that's another completely different style. So one of the things that drew me to the discipline in the beginning was that the writing was really good. And I remember I took as an undergraduate class in history of Vietnam, and it was the first time I had read journal articles from history. And they were so they were so good. And I just immediately I became, I wanted to read more of them and I was interested in the publications and and the sort of intricacy and density of some of the writing really appeal to me.

Patrick Potyondy  
So do you think historians have had almost an advantage in terms of of their writing they work more at it or is it perhaps just more important to their discipline?

Sarah Siff  
To me writing is important in any discipline, but particularly in history, you have to sell your idea your version of how things happen. And to do that, you have to keep all these things in mind as you're writing, you have to be succinct because you don't want to lose people's attention and you have to be truthful, you have to present sources and make sometimes you have to make a case that your sources are important. You have to make a case that your sources are credible. It's just a lot of different threads that you have to hold on to at once. It's challenging. Definitely.

Patrick Potyondy  
Do you find it's hard to get people outside of academia? Do you find it hard to to kind of explain what you do to them?

Sarah Siff  
What I find hard is when they say that my research sounds interesting whether they mean that or not.

Patrick Potyondy  
Right, yeah. How genuine is that? Interesting.

Sarah Siff  
But my research is not esoteric. I am interested in how people thought about evolutionary theory during the Civil Rights era. So when I describe the three main things, for example, that I have so far found out about that topic, people seem to understand what I'm talking about. And they usually say it's interesting. But what does that mean? 

Patrick Potyondy  
Right, definitely, I think I can relate to that difficulty there. And has has your Origins article, "From Karl Marx to Karl Rove", has your Origins article helped you to convey what you do in that regard?

Sarah Siff  
I posted it on Facebook. And so a few of my handful of my friends probably will have read it. I hope that that people find it accessible. The goal of Origins is to make research accessible and I think it succeeds at doing that.

Patrick Potyondy  
Well, thanks, Sarah. Thank you for joining us today on Writers Talk History.

Sarah Siff  
Thank you.

Doug Dangler  
You're listening to Writers Talk from the Center for the Study and teaching of writing at The Ohio State University with my guest, Patrick Potyondy talking with historian Sarah Siff.

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