By Nina Easton
Shorenstein Center Goldsmith Fellow, Spring 2012
Senior editor-at-large, Fortune magazine
Alexis de Tocqueville, arguably the first investigative journalist to ply U.S. soil, famously chronicled American society’s love of equality—and its equally passionate pursuit of money. “The love of wealth,” the French historian wrote in 1848, “is… at the bottom of all Americans do.” Forty years later, the Scotsman James Bryce also noted our “worship of wealth. The amazing fuss which is made about very rich men, the descriptions of their doings, the speculation as to their intentions, the gossip about their private life…He who builds up a huge fortune, especially if he does it suddenly, is no doubt a sort of hero, because an enormous number of men have the same ambition.”
Except when they don’t.
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.
Rebellions against the rich—picked up and magnified by a usually sympathetic media—are as much a part of the fabric of American life as the Horatio Alger myth. In 2011, the nation still struggling under the weight of the Great Recession, the media became consumed with a modern-day version of economic populism: The “one-percent” divide. Over the course of just a few months, a series of protests calling itself “Occupy Wall Street” succeeded in captivating reporters and drawing the nation’s attention to the growing disparity between the rich—the top 1% —and 99%, the rest of the country.
A shorter version of the paper was published as the cover story in Fortune magazine: Stop Beating Up the Rich.