Alexis de Tocqueville famously chronicled American society's love of equality -- and its equally passionate pursuit of money. "The love of wealth," the French historian wrote in the 1840s, "is … at the bottom of all that the Americans do." America stands out among Western nations for its grudging, and often fawning, admiration for the wealthy classes it produces. With the road to riches seemingly wide open, Americans favor aspiration over resentment, envy over animus.
Except when they don't.
Rebellions against the rich are as much a part of the fabric of American life as the Horatio Alger myth. One year ago this month, that rebellion crystallized at lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, with the start of a series of autumnal protests called Occupy Wall Street.
During summer organizing meetings, anthropologist and former Yale professor David Graeber had hit on a brilliant marketing formula for the rebels: "Why not call ourselves the 99%?" he recalled asking fellow plotters. "If 1% of the population have ended up with all the benefits of the last 10 years of economic growth, control the wealth, own the politicians … why not just say we're everybody else?"
In a hotly contested presidential election year, that formula found easy political resonance. The 99% doesn't just mean the poor or the unemployed or even the hardhat crowd. It includes the vast middle class of blue collar and white collar and pink collar -- even the upper middle class. It's the 99% that defined America's post-World War II economic might and remains the target of any serious aspirant to the Oval Office. With head-spinning speed, the 1%-99% divide entered the vocabulary of journalists, politicians, and voters. More than ever in recent memory, both a presidential election and critical policy debates in Washington are being fought through this prism.
Sadly, it is a confusing and flawed prism, marred by hyperbole, half-truths, and unnecessary pessimism about what it means to succeed in America. Yes, in politics, perceptions do matter. Reports of CEOs making 231 times the average worker's pay, news of fat Wall Street bonuses often unhinged from performance, and images of executives flying to Washington on private jets to beg for bailouts feed fears that the system is hopelessly rigged toward the rich and powerful. But it's wrong to lump the 1% into a monolithic group of greedy, tax-avoiding, selfish capitalists. They are a lot different from what you might think. Read more at Fortune.com