Think Again: The Era
of the 'One Percent'
by Eric Alterman | Center for American Progress
Whether one agrees or disagrees with the tactics of the
Occupy Wall Street movement, it’s easy to understand the inspiration for its
anger as well as its impatience.
“Historical movements,” the historian Mary Jo Buhle rightly
notes, “are rarely judged solely in the light they cast themselves.” In that
sense it is a decidedly risky business to try to draw too many hard and fast
conclusions about the present moment in history. Even so, I think the Nobel
laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz was as accurate as anyone is likely to be
when he pronounced
our age—and our government—to be one “of the one percent, by the one
percent, for the one percent.”
Think about it: In 1974 the top 0.1 percent of American
families enjoyed 2.7 percent of all income in the country. By 2007 this same tiny slice of the
population had increased its holdings to fully 12.3 percent—roughly five times
as great a piece of the pie as it had enjoyed just three decades earlier. Half
the U.S. population owns barely 2 percent of its wealth, putting the United
States near Rwanda and Uganda and below such nations as pre-Arab Spring Tunisia
and Egypt when
measured by degrees of income inequality.
Over one in five American children is living
in poverty, and the number is rising. By the end of 2010, corporate profits
rose by fully 15 percent of the economic pie—their biggest share of the economy
since such statistics became available nearly 70 years earlier—while the share
going to workers’ wages dropped
to their lowest level in the same period and fell below 50 percent of
national income for the first time.
It’s difficult, however, to imagine a time in our politics
when our system is so unbalanced in this direction. According to the political
scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, for instance, the number
of political action committees grew from under 300 in 1976 to nearly 5,000
by 2010. The degree of funds these PACs control and direct toward politicians
of both parties on issues of concern has the power to overcome almost any group
of voters who attempt to organize themselves in opposition.
Americans have always evinced some distrust of government,
but the current situation has exacerbated this to a degree that may be
unprecedented. A CNN/ORC International poll published on Wednesday found that fewer than one in seven Americans questioned trusted the government “to do
what’s right almost always or most of the time,” an all-time low since
University of Michigan pollsters began asking the question in 1958. This was
approximately the same anemic percentage of those questioned who, in a previous
poll taken last year (subscription required), expressed confidence in the
government’s “ability to stand up to vested interests.”
A related problem is a lack of trust in elites: Citizens do
not believe that the programs politicians propose will last or make any
difference if they do last, and they do not vote in their own interests because
all they see are the likely costs.
The governing style of the Obama administration only
reinforced these beliefs. As the Democratic pollster and political scientist
Stanley Greenberg wrote in July 2011:
The government saved irresponsible executives who bankrupted
their own companies, hurt many people and threatened the welfare of the
country. When Mr. Obama championed the bailout of the auto companies and
allowed senior executives at bailed-out companies to take bonuses, voters
concluded that he was part of the operating elite consensus.
Never have liberals needed to stand up stronger on behalf of
their constituency. But the fact remains that on the economic front, they find
themselves on the defensive in virtually every respect. Liberalism, much like
President Obama at the outset of his presidency, was torn between commitments
to preserve the necessary civility in political life and a desire to pursue
substantive values of justice and equity. Based on the success conservatives
have enjoyed with arguments like “death panels,” “socialism,” and “Sharia law”
(to say nothing of the near default of the U. S. government) the president has
succeeded in neither respect.
Today liberalism has pledged itself to rationality in a
culture in which the anti-intellectualism initially identified by the historian
Richard Hofstadter has run rampant across the entire political culture. Its
practice, the philosopher Michael Walzer observed,
“is a hard politics because it offers so few emotional rewards; the liberal
state is not a home for its citizens; it lacks warmth and intimacy.”
Lacking universal foundations — Lionel Trilling termed
it “a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine”— liberalism
can offer only narratives of sacrifice and common purpose, ones that can easily
be trumped by the tales of the right, which frequently combine libertarianism
with jingoism, fearmongering, and other easily pushed emotional buttons that
tend to drown out the more idealistic homilies that liberals put forth.
As Hofstadter feared nearly 60 years ago, “In a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a
responsible elite with political and moral autonomy, and in which it is
possible to exploit the wildest currents of public sentiment for private
purposes,” it would be “at least conceivable that a highly organized, vocal,
active, and well-financed minority could create a political climate in which
the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”
“We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great
wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” the great liberal jurist Louis
Brandeis prophesied in the second decade of the 20th century. “But we can't have both.”
Conservatives have made their choice. It’s long past time
for liberals to make theirs.
Eric Alterman is a
Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor
of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He
is also a columnist for The Nation, The
Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest
book is Kabuki
Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.
This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.