Not polite, certainly, but also not a Nazi. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg
Not polite, certainly, but also not a Nazi. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Why do some rich folks seem to have an exaggerated sense of liberal “Kill the Rich!” sentiments?

That was a big topic over the weekend after super-rich guy Tom Perkins said some foolish things about liberals and Kristallnacht, which liberals immediately jumped on as typical of what the rich think about Barack Obama, liberals and Democrats. The basic liberal position: What are the rich complaining about? After all, look at the stock market -- the Obama years have been a lot better to the rich than the George W. Bush years. Even if rich conservatives can’t accept the notion that liberals really want to save capitalism, rather than undermine it, no one who actually listens to Obama could believe that his presidency has been devoted to bashing the wealthy. Josh Marshall has a thoughtful piece speculating on just why rich people have turned paranoid about Obama and the Democrats; it’s worth reading.

But it’s also worth being careful about this stuff. In the first place, Kevin Drum has argued convincingly that a lot of the overreaction to Obama’s presidency is similar to overreactions to FDR, JFK and Bill Clinton. Not exactly the same, of course, but essentially there’s something about electing a liberal Democrat that produces a strong reaction among some people. So it’s not clear, to begin with, that there’s anything different about reaction to Obama.

If there is something different among the rich, however, I suspect that a major factor is partisanship and information flows. If you don’t like Obama much, you probably don’t listen to his speeches very often. So what you know of him comes from news media. And while I don’t carefully monitor Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or the rest, I’m pretty confident that the Republican-aligned press spends a lot more time fomenting class warfare than Obama actually does. They don't need to make stuff up; it’s not hard to pull out a few quotes from all the things a president says -- "fat cat" bankers, for example -- and then repeat them over and over. Genuine sound bites, duly repeated, are probably sufficient to convince even a skeptical listener that bashing the rich is a major theme of the presidency. And not everyone is a skeptical listener.

That said, liberals should be wary of doing the exact same thing in reverse. Believing that attacks on Google buses in San Francisco is a sign of a future fascist apocalypse is nuts. And I do think it’s probably true that rich people, in general, overstate the mainstream liberal appetite for class warfare. But then again, some of this may simply be normal opposition on policy grounds, and liberals are just as capable of cherry-picking the worst quotes from the other side and packaging them as representative. After all, anyone reading the liberal blogs or following progressives on Twitter this weekend knows all about Perkins, but that doesn’t mean that Perkins is typical of rich people, or even of rich Republicans.

Liberals are less likely than conservatives to find themselves locked in an information feedback loop, in large part because liberals don’t consider the “neutral,” nonpartisan press part of a conspiracy against them -- something conservatives have worked hard to convinced themselves of for more than a generation. I do think there’s something to the idea that the rich have become somewhat paranoid about class warfare directed against them. But I’m really not convinced, yet, that it’s any different from the 1990s or 1960s or 1930s.

To contact the writer of this article: Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at +1-212-617-8699 or fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.