In effect, the 21st century version of class conflict sets the stage for an exceptionally bitter face-off between the left and the right in Congress. The national government is facing the prospect of forced austerity, weighing such zero-sum choices as raising capital gains taxes or cutting food stamps, slashing defense spending or restricting unemployment benefits, establishing a 15 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax or pushing citizens off the Medicaid rolls, pushing central bank policy favorable to the financial services industry or curtailing Medicare eligibility.

In broader terms, the political confrontation pits taxpayers, who now form the core of the center-right coalition, against tax consumers who form the core of the center-left. According to the Tax Policy Center, 46.4 percent of all tax filers had no federal income tax liability in 2011 (although most people pay a combination of state, sales, excise, property and other levies).There are clear exceptions to this dichotomy, as many Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries (tax recipients) vote Republican, and many college-educated upper-income citizens of all races and ethnicities (tax payers) vote Democratic. Nonetheless, the overarching division remains, and the battle lines are drawn over how to distribute the costs of the looming fiscal crisis. The outcome of this policy fight will determine whether Limbaugh is correct to fear that his side has “lost the country.”