Blog #14 Who is the 1%? The Ruling Class and the tea parties.

Blog #14 Who is the 1%? The Ruling Class and the tea parties.

A. How is the 1% defined?


Who the 1% is, and how numerous it is, has been the subject of much work. As used in the 1%/99% formulation it does clearly not mean the top 1% by any simple quantitative measure, of income or wealth. [1] Those figures are indeed striking. Look at the distribution of wealth (as of 2007)[2]


Total Net Worth

Top 1 percent            Next 19 percent                       Bottom 80%

34.6%                            50.5%                                15.0%


Year2009                                            Average Wealth

Top 0.1% $610
Top 1% $1,326
Top 5% $2,482
Between 5% & 10% $898
Top 10% $3,380
Between 10% & 25% $1,770
Top 25% $5,150
Between 25% & 50% $1,620
Top 50% $6,770
Bottom 50% $1,055
                                                  Total $7.825


But the figures don’t themselves give meaning to the concept.. The top 1% own more than the bottom 50% put together.  The top .01% own 7% or all wealth in the United States; the top 1% own 16%. How much of the total does one have to own before one is in control?  It all depends on how the system is structured, what positions they hold, how cohesive they are and on what issues, etc. “Business owner” is certainly not adequate; the owner of a small grocery store  is not part of the 1%; neither is Joe the plumber, even if he owns his own business, even if he likes to talk as if he is. Much more needs to be known to make “1%” a realistic force exploiting or oppressing all the rest.[3]


More meaningfully, then, the 1% has been variously called “the ruling class,, the “power elite,” the upper 1 or 5 or 10% of the income or wealth distribution, “capital,” “the bourgeoisie.”, and other terms. It must take into account not only the actual holders of power[4] but also their lackeys, their technicians, their ideologues and apologists, and it consists of identifiable disparate parts: manufacturing owners and managers, the financial sector, commercial enterprises, real estate owners,, political leaders, petty as well as corporate business, etc., etc. [5]


For the 1% is hardly a homogeneous class. Consider the following divisions within the group:


  • Export-oriented manufacturers and service industries vs. those serving their internal national market;
  • Real estate developers and property owners vs. business users of the infrastructure and organization of cities;
  • Those using immigrant workers vs. those using  anti-immigrant sentiment politically;
  • Those for whom spatial location is important vs. those whose operations are easily mobile;
  • Those relying on governmental economic support vs. those limited by government regulation;

And possibly:

  • Those with personal ideological, ethnic, or cultural commitments

Measuring the 1% is not so simple, nor is telling just who is in it and who isn’t.  But precision is not really necessary. Some individuals, by virtue of their life styles (gold bathroom fixtures, mansions), their extreme declarations (Gordon Geiko), their obvious positions of power at the head of giant corporations or key financial or public institutions, make obvious targets, but the underlying issue is the commitment to the exercise and retention of power and subservience to the necessities of ongoing accumulation.[6] Further, some may be members of the 15 fo some purposes and not for others:  for example, on important policy issues, technicians may also be parts of the 1%, but on others parts of the  99%, with interests on the side of resistance as well as of domination. Well-to-do entrepreneurs may find their over-priced mansions subject to foreclosure as a result of the housing bubble, and side with those demanding more regulation; the victims of hedge fund manipulators may well favor restrictions on their activities and even, if only in reflective mode, changes in the tax code penalizing their activities..


And there are supporters of the 1% who are not themselves holders of wealth or in positions of power. Most supporters of the tea parties, for instance, are generally members of the broad 99%, the potential full 99%. The tea party members and its supporters thus bear closer analysis.

B. The Tea Party and the 1%[7]

The composition of the tea party movement is in fact paradoxical. Its most prominent leaders profess a conservative social ideology critical of the status quo grounded in self-interest, but rather in defense of the good things they already have than in upset about  material deprivation or oppression, or exploitation, , although sometimes including labor union members. A leading figure like Rand Paul, recent Republican winner of the Senate seat in Arkansas, is a libertarian ophthalmologist, and Sarah Palin is driven by political objectives; they are not themselves suffering from existing arrangements.  The tea parties draw financial support from billionaires, financiers, industrialists, people already doing very well in the existing society and having no personal interest in attacking it.[8]The most comprehensive poll to date[9] shows members are not disproportionately unemployed,  are disproportionately married, registered to vote, significantly older, college educated, white non-Hispanic, above median income, male, self-described as middle or upper-middle class.[10] They say that the recession has, disproportionately, not caused them hardship, but nevertheless been difficult. Only 20% of those who considered themselves supporters of the tea party had ever been to a meeting or rally or contributed money to it, and those who are indeed active may well be of quite different characteristics.[11] I would hazard the hypothesis that the tea parties have three levels of supporters:

  • the leadership, from within the 1%, usually well-to-do conservative individuals, ideological in approach, is often motivated by personal political aspirations;
  • the insecure self-defined members of the “middle class,” largely passive supporters, predominantly upper middle class, worried about the future and insecure in keeping the thus far largely untouched public and private benefits they already have, responding to surveys and voting tea party but otherwise largely passive, manipulated into passivity in their every-day  lives; and
  • the frustrated street-level activists who are not doing well, see little future for themselves, feel oppressed or exploited, are influenced by wide-spread media and political ideological pressures, who displace their reactions to the oppression, exploitation, insecurity they encounter in their everyday lives onto an ideologically-created target, generally the government, often minority group members, LGBTQ members, and groups with “other” religious beliefs, cultural habits, or appearance.

It is this latter group, the street-level activist tea party supporters that are drawn from the groups that would, if their material interests were determinative, be the strongest supporters of radical change. The right knows this: Richard Viguerie, once executive secretary of Young Americans for Freedom, a radical right-wing group, was, for instance, clear on this:

Viguerie believed that the real base for the conservative movement needed to be blue-collar white people, the descendants of Irish or Italian or Eastern European immigrants, with ‘traditional’ social values. Such votes could, he thought, be wooed away from their support for social and economic programs and labor unions through an appeal to them as individuals concerned about protecting their families, their neighborhoods, and their homes from the dangers posed by radicals.[12]


The same thinking as Joseph Goebbels adopted?

While the tea party phenomenon is grounded for its majority, including the passive tea party supporters, in the on-going psychological mechanisms that have long supported the status quo, their appearance today is linked to the actual crisis of the economic system, reinforced as cause of existential insecurity by the deliberate nurturing of fear in everyday life of terrorism and simply the unknown: “If you see something, say something,” whatever it is that’s at all out of the ordinary becomes something to be afraid of, to report to the authorities, beyond one’s own control, the result of hostile forces. It is no wonder paranoia is so infectious.

But the Tea Party and its kin have significant success also because of the void in alternative explanations, alternative courses of action, created by the absence of any critical and appealing alternative in sight. This absence is not simply the result of repression from above, but also of their cooptation of potential resistance by liberal forces and leadership. To be more specific, the hope that brought Obama to the presidency in the U.S. has been disappointed. The election has not brought the change, or the clarity of understanding and direction, that had been intuitively expected. The Tea Party enters a void created both by those who opposed reform to begin with and by those who promised reform but did not produce it or fight for it. When neo-conservatives and liberals alike support big bank bailouts, the everyday protest has nowhere effective to go, and is displaced to opposition to big government, where at least strong forces are available to lead the way. The ideological right radicalism of the tea party is the result.

It is characteristic of such right radicalism that it emblazons on its banner the very arrangements that have produced the unhappiness, the insecurity, the alienation that underlies those results. It is an either/or: the characteristics of everyday life lead, if deeply felt, either to a radical left or radical right political stance. Right radicalism is then justified by an elaborate ideological paraphernalia, purporting to address the underlying unhappiness by blaming it on government, on the very measures that might in fact address its causes. That is the essence of the ideology of neo-liberalism, and it has largely succeeded in pre-empting the possibilities of a solution through a return to the welfare state.[13]

The phenomenon is international. Describing the results of the recent Hungarian elections with their right-wing populist victory, Pau Hockenos describes:

Alienation between politicians and the electorate has caused public trust in democratic processes to plummet… All too often the recourse of frustrated voters has been to politicians who, in the name of opposing the powers that  be, subvert liberal democracy and all it entails, including minority rights, pluralism and limitations on national sovereignty. Europe’s new populists tout quirky agendas that cut across ideological fronts. Their simplistic programs and impassioned rhetoric can include typically right-wing elements, such ethnic scape-goating, but also leftist critiques of income and power disparities. They divide society into two homogeneous and utterly antagonistic groups: ‘the people as such’ (represented by their party) and a ‘corrupt, illegitimate elite’(some combination of pro-free market, EU-friendly, cosmopolitan policy-makers.)[14]


Logic would then suggest the need for action from below in the direction of radical change . by those who see her security as threatened, those likely to feel themselves discontented and alienated. That includes the individuals that make up the tea party’s support. But a displacement of the need for radical change is systematically fostered, among many of those affected, to substitute different targets for their protest, displacing protest for radical change. The present situation should logically put the alternatives in bold relief, but that is exactly what some fundamental social and psychological patterns block. The attempt in everyday life to deal with the deprivation and discontent created by the failure of the system then also leads to repression from below


It is tempting to analyze (forgive me–in both senses) the tea party in purely psychological terms.[15] In psychology, which after all is an attempt to understand the everyday lives of individuals, one speaks of defence mechanisms against potentially painful realities. Critical theory leans heavily on Freudian psychoanalysis in its conceptualizations here. The key concept is displacement:[16]


Displacement: Defense mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening. For example, a mother may yell at her child because she is angry with her husband.[17]





At a pathological level other psychological mechanisms include:


Delusional Projection: Grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.

Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn’t exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.

Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.

Splitting: A primitive defense. Negative and positive impulses are split off and unintegrated. Fundamental ex: People are split and seen as devils or angels rather than whole cohesive continuous persons.

The external reality as to which tea party actions are a defense is in fact the structures and relationships of economic and political life, whose nature is being denied/displaced  The mechanisms seem literally applicable. In the displacement, capitalism is the husband, government is the child?

The painful discontent, which is grounded in reality, were it mediated through critical theory, would be progressive, radical, but is systematically rechanneled into right-wing militancy.

The rationality of the tea party folk is easy to dismiss:

The Tea Party crazies, the Limbaugh lunatics and the Glenn Beck bigots provide cover for the corporate influence-peddlers.  Their outrageous arguments divert our attention away from the ways that banks and other big corporations are undermining the economy and our democracy. This [citing their attack on Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward[18]] is lunacy, but they actually believe it, as you can see nightly when Glenn Beck goes to his blackboard and draws lines between Woodrow Wilson, George Soros, Cloward and Piven, and Obama! [19]

Irrational, yes; but lunacy? Never mind the fact that it is backed by some non-lunatic individuals and groups very rationally pursuing their own self interest through funding and media support. The everyday worry and deep discontent that the present crisis has brought to the fore finds its outlet in this form of right-wing activism, by those already suffering from or perceiving an imminent danger of being subjected to the unemployment, loss of health care, foreclosure of home or eviction from rental, and loss of even those gains their parents made before them in everyday life.

At the ideological level alternatives are discounted, blocked, evicted from serious consideration. The intellectual possibility of visualizing fundamental change vanishes.[20] The repression is often quite unconscious, internally repressed, so that the individual is simply not aware even of the possibility of alternatives:


the insecure “middle class” and the minority of well-paid working class, the ideologically and culturally manipulated, those displacing resistance and discontent and objections to injustice onto psychological scapegoats, from the government to immigrants to minority group members, and to themselves. Social conservatives,


The Tea Partiers can in any event be distinguished from the core of the 1%. They may be financed by, manipulated by, convinced by, the 1%, and they see their positions as supportive of the 1%, and of capitalism as such and why they certainly do not identify themselves as members of the 99%, they in fact have interests and feelings in common with them. Tom Frank “overcome with a sense of impending or actual loss,”[21]


And the focus on translating intellectual conformity into not only the restraint of resistant everyday behavior but shaping a pre-emptive conformity: the tea parties. Not be understood as a political movement, because empty of any real political content: low taxes, no government, racism, intolerance of dissent, are not politically grounded, ideological position; they are molds imposed on everyday life geared to displace, pre-empt, and move first to resistance and ultimately to critical practice. It is neo-liberalism at the ground level, in everyday life, stripped of it ideological mantle and pretensions. Its goal is the domination of everyday life, from intellectual questioning to sexual behavior to public behavior and definitions of orderly conduct.

The argument here is that the external reality as to which tea party actions are a defense is in fact the structures and relationships of economic and political life, whose nature is being denied/displaced, when a clearer understanding of them would lead to precisely the opposite kinds of actions as those undertaken by tea partiers.

The argument is that they are one expression of deep discontent, which were it mediated through critical theory, would be radical, but is systematically rechanneled into right-wing militancy. I want to analogize Thompson : tea party as working class (left undefined) without consciousness of itself as a class, a consciousness that must be rooted in everyday life and the understanding of the structural underpinnings of everyday life. The response to feeling the ills of the world in everyday life, to an existential insecurity, is either class consciousness or class denial. The tea party is class denial.


This is a quite different analysis from that of Peter Dreier, for instance:


The Tea Party crazies, the Limbaugh lunatics and the Glenn Beck bigots provide cover for the corporate influence-peddlers.  Their outrageous arguments divert our attention away from the ways that banks and other big corporations are undermining the economy and our democracy. A good example is the Right’s growing attack on sociologist Frances Fox Piven and her late partner, Richard Cloward. The paranoid right-wing echo chamber views these two academic activists as Marxist Machiavellis whose ideas — especially a 1966 article in The Nation about building an anti-poverty movement — have not only spawned an interlocking radical movement dedicated to destroying modern-day capitalism but also, in their minds at least, almost succeeded, as evidenced by what they consider Obama’s “socialist” agenda. This is lunacy, but they actually believe it, as you can see nightly when Glenn Beck goes to his blackboard and draws lines between Woodrow Wilson, George Soros, Cloward and Piven, and Obama! [22]


The policy implications of that analysis are briefly addressed at the end of this paper, but the focus here is on who the 99%[23] are.

[1] The data on the brute facts of the extent of inequality is enormous. A good brief summary is at: Christopher Hayes, “Why Elites Fail,” The Nation, June 25, 2012, pp. 11=18.

[2] G. William Domhoff,  “Wealth, Income, and Power”, available at, which also has more detailed data and full references.


[3] A large literature deals with the issue, some of it very illuminating. See, for instance, C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite, or G. Domhoff’s Who Rules America/ The focus in the bestis properly on who exercises power in the society.

[4] For data on the more conspiratorial aspects of exactly who the 1% are and how they rule, see, for New York State: The Public Accountability Initiative, “1% The Committee to Save New York: How a Small Group of Big Business Interests and Billionaires are Hijacking New York State’s Public Policy Agenda on Behalf of the One Percent,”

[5] Thomas Frank has rich anecdotal material on the varieties of views and interests in the Tea Party, for instance. See Pity the Billionaire: The Har-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comback of the the Roght, Metropolitan, 2012.

[6] For an excellent recent critical but balanced discussion, with extensive citations, see Jonathan Davies, “Back to the Future: Marxism and Urban Politics,     in Jonathan S. Davies and David L. Imbroscio, eds., Critical Urban Studies: New Directions, State University of New York Press, 2010, pp. 73-88.

[7] Portions of this discussion are taken from a conference presentation, “Why the Tea Parties Have Popular Support,” in us, 2011.F written versin is in process.

[8] Except possibly defensively, but then they would be among the few that consider the left a serious danger today.

[9] Whether the material position of women also results in a difference in the nature of the resistance offered is complex. The evidence from the New York Times survey suggests that 41% of tea party supporters are women, as compared to 51% in its sample, and 70% of all tea party supporters are married, as opposed to 52% in its sample. Available at: The survey report has questions that distinguish between active and inactive supporters, does not permit cross-tabulations between that answer and other characteristics, such as gender. Women are conspicuous in many (most?) photos, and were in our two town forums.

[10] As argued above, attempts to define “middle class” quantitatively are only helpful in following trends, not in analing real relationships in the economy or society. Wee, for instance, the good but limited usefulness of a paper such as The American Middle Class, Income Inequality, and the Strength of Our Economy: New Evidence in Economics

By Heather Boushey, Adam Hersh | May 17, 2012, Center for American Progress, available at

[11] After writing this, I learned of a cross-tabulation of the New York Times survey results that disproves this hypothesis: activists were not younger, less educated, poorer, than more passive supporters. The most significant differences seem to be that activists are more conservative (no surprise), more married (90% compared to 80%), less gun owning. From an analysis prepared by the News Surveys Department at The New York Times.

[12] Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, New York, Norton, 2009, as quoted in Paul le Blanc, “Know thine Enemy,” Monthly Review, May 2010, p. 48.

[13] There is good reason to believe that such a return was not only politically not desired but economically impossible; the literature on the left making this argument is extensive.

[14] “Central Europe’s Right-Wing Populism,” The Ntion, May 24, 2010, p. 18.

[15] For a more literal psychological argument, equating the tea party’s rage against government with that of a jilted lover formerly dependent on a lover (government) but now rejected, see

[16] The formulations given here are from a useful summary posted on Wikipedia:

[17] There are countless examples and variations; One-Dimensional Man is full of examples. For a relatively innocuous form, sports: “We don’t love sport because we are like babies suckling at

the teat of constant distraction. We love it because it’s exciting, interesting and at its best, rises to the level of


[18] “A good example is the Right’s growing attack on sociologist Frances Fox Piven and her late partner, Richard Cloward. The paranoid right-wing echo chamber views these two academic activists as Marxist Machiavellis whose ideas — especially a 1966 article in The Nation about building an anti-poverty movement — have not only spawned an interlocking radical movement dedicated to destroying modern-day capitalism but also, in the minds of their critics, at least, almost succeeded, as evidenced by what the critics  consider Obama’s “socialist” agenda.”

[19] E-mail, Lessons from the health care and soda tax wars; the Right’s conspiracy theory; LA talks by Bob Kuttner, 20/10/2010.

[20] Tom Slater has provided an elegant case study of the process in academia in his aptly entitled (2006) “The eviction of critical perspectives from gentrification research,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30(4) p.737-757.

[21] Quote is from a review by Steve Fraser in The Nation, May 21, 2012, p. 37.

[22] E-mail, Lessons from the health care and soda tax wars; the Right’s conspiracy theory; LA talks by Bob Kuttner, 20/10/2010.

[23] For a questionable definition of the 1%, reflecting not power but income and wealth, The Times had estimated the threshold for being in the top 1 percent in household income at about $380,000, 7.5 times median household income, using census data from 2008 through 2010. But for net worth, the 1 percent threshold for net worth in the Fed data was nearly $8.4 million, or 69 times the median household’s net holdings of $121,000.  “Measuring the Top 1% by Wealth, Not Income.” By Robert Gebeloff and Shaila Dewan,, available at Others use much higher figures using the median of the group, not the threshold: “the so-called ‘1 percent.’ Those with median annual household incomes of $750,000 and median assets of $7.5 million.” Richard Morais, contributing editor at Barron’s, at From a conservative point of view, Charles Murray gives the size of the elite as 5%. , Coming Apart: The State of Whie America 1960-2010, Crown Forum, 2012,

Author: pmarcuse

Just starting this blog, for short pieces on current issues. Suggestions for improvement, via e-mail, very welcome.

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