The 99% Movement Isn’t (or Shouldn’t Be) About Identity Politics

Earlier this week, Politico ran a header casting insurgent liberal leader Elizabeth Warren as “a well-off voice for the poor,” and musing about how “her financial well-being will likely hand conservatives a new line of attack,” and could potentially hurt her reformist credibility.

How? Why?

Wealthy advocates for the poor are not exactly a new phenomenon in American politics. From Jefferson to Jackson to Bryan to Edwards — the latter despite his flaws — grassroots, financial populism has always found its clearest expression in sympathetic elites. That’s the way it has to be, since the poor will, by definition, lack the kind of access necessary to make their case to the nation. What’s much stranger, and really should provoke confusion, is the new politics of wealth where the poor, as a function of social politics, somehow come to defend the very systems that perpetuate inequality of both opportunity and result. Absent such distortion, I suspect we’d see a unity of purpose between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street… but I digress.

The identity of advocates like Elizabeth Warren should be besides the point, because the 99% Movement isn’t (and shouldn’t be) about who you are, the luck you’ve had, and the wealth you want for yourself. Rather, it should be about the kind of world you would wish for anyone in America, regardless of your particular luck and the successes you’ve had. It’s not a movement defined by personal goals (“I should be rich”), but by a society-wide ambition (“We should all have a fair chance, and government has a role in that mission”). Consequentially, individual life stories — and especially those defined by exceptional talent, luck, or sacrifice — aren’t really probative of the movement or its goals, because nothing exceptional generalizes to a national solution. Individual success stories (like Andrew Carnegie, say) speak to the achievability of the American dream on a case-by-case basis, but they don’t offer a solution for poverty, or for rebuilding a sustainable middle class, because how many Andrew Carnegies can there really be in each generation?

It is not surprising, I suppose, that this distinction eludes so many. In a national dialogue defined by individual need and selfishness — who we don’t want to pay for, who doesn’t “deserve” what — a movement defined by mutual obligation and shared destiny strikes a dissonant note. But that’s precisely why it’s so important.

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9 comments

  1. Interesting insight.

  2. I wish for a world in which the 1% are the 100%. So where does that put me?

    1. In need of a course in basic statistics, because there’ll always be a 1% – at least until your population size goes below 100.

      Besides, who’s going to clean your sewers when the 99% are gone?

      1. Glib response 1: robots
        Glib response two: there wouldn’t be sewers, since a worldwide human population of 70,000,000 wouldn’t have the density to need them.

        I actually am really bad at statistics, but my point was more about “I don’t give a shit about poverty and I don’t see a problem with focusing on ‘individual need and selfishness’ and I don’t believe in ‘mutual obligation and shared destiny’.”

        Population size below 100 is lower than ideal, but it’s on the same order of magnitude – at least when we’re talking about people I care about. People who aren’t my friends aren’t really people to me.

        1. I think I’ve just come up with the perfect solution for you! Instead of all that messing slaughtering of 6.999 billion people, why not just move to a really distant island? Then you could invite just as many or few people as you feel appropriate and of the proper qualities to make up your society, and leave everyone else to their own miseries.

          Also, you should totally name the island ‘Rapture’. (And don’t trust anyone named Frank).

          1. Islands are difficult to obtain. They’re also difficult to hold on to, as Rose Island and Minerva demonstrated back in the 70s. Plus, hermitage doesn’t make the world a better place now, does it?

  3. “Individual success stories (like Andrew Carnegie, say) speak to the achievability of the American dream on a case-by-case basis, but they don’t offer a solution for poverty, or for rebuilding a sustainable middle class, because how many Andrew Carnegies can there really be in each generation?”

    Considering social mobility is now significantly higher in Europe than it is in the US, I think we should start calling it the “European dream” until further notice. You can have it back when you fix your country (maybe). :nods:

  4. “…isn’t (and shouldn’t be) about who you are…it should be about the kind of world you would wish for anyone in America…”

    If only liberals would feel that way when the next ‘pro-family’ Republican gets caught in a sex scandal.

    1. Isn’t that different? That’s about personal hypocrisy, while nothing Warren’s done is in the least hypocritical.

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