This is the second part of an extended excerpt from Joel Berg’s forthcoming “America, We Need to Talk: a Self Help Book for the Nation,” to be published by Seven Stories Press in early 2017. To read part one, click here.
* * * *
Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders for President campaign, and many progressive writers and activists have said over and over that the one percent is fleecing America for their own benefit, while everyone in the remaining 99 percent are being duped and screwed. Really? The entirety of the 99 percent is a blameless, suffering victim?
I certainly get why it’s vital to point out the myriad of problems caused by such staggering wealth at the very top. In fact, in my first book (written way back in the pre-Occupy Stone Age of 2008), I wrote: “While all of the merely rich and very rich certainly did far better than the poor, the near-poor, and the lower middle class, even the merely rich and the very rich were all left in the dust by the ultra-rich.” I had a field day excoriating the wealth of the Fortune 400 and detailing just how obscenely ultra-rich the obscenely ultra-rich were. Of course since then, they’ve only become more obscenely ultra-rich.
Many of us tended to equate the top one percent with all things bad about our plutocracy. Wrote Chris Hayes: “The one percent and the nation’s governing class are more or less one and the same. If you are a member of the governing elite and aren’t a millionaire, you’re doing something wrong. And if the divide between the one percent and the 99 percent really is a defining feature of our politics, how can the 99 percent trust that some wealthy, governing elite will zealously pursue its interests?” (1)
But in retrospect, all this focus, including my own (mea culpa!), on just the very, very top of the moneyed elites likely had the unintended negative impact of oversimplifying the problem and letting many residing in the top 20 percent, including the families of some of the Occupy protesters, off the hook for their own complicity in our rotten system.
America had 536 billionaires in 2015, which was just a small subset of the 16,000 families that comprised the top one percent. Moreover, the U.S. had more than 10 million millionaires in 2014. (2) Yes, you read that right, more than 10 million households (about 12 percent of all US households)—owned more than one million dollars or more in investable assets, a 500,000-person jump over the previous year. That means not just the top one percent, but actually the entire top 12 percent of Americans lived in millionaire households, (while 15 percent were poor). That’s why, if you look carefully outside the window of a plane when you’re approaching an airport’s runway in virtually any big or medium city in America, as you pass over the suburbs or exurbs you can see massive developments of McMansions. (At the airport itself, you are likely to see many small private jets and planes, as well.)
Economist Joseph Stiglitz, who played a key role in popularizing the progressive focus on the top one percent, has explained how some of the money distinctions between elites and non-elites can be a bit elastic: “I often use the term ‘the one percent’ loosely, to refer to the economic and political power of those at the top. In some cases, what I really have in mind is a much smaller group—the top one-tenth of one percent; in other cases, in discussing access to elite education, for instance, there is a somewhat larger group, perhaps the top five percent or 10 percent.” ) (3)
As for earnings (as opposed to assets) in 2014, 5.5 percent of U.S. households, one in 20, earned over $200,000, and another five percent earned between $150,000 and $199,000. An additional 13.54 percent earned between $100,000 and $149,000. All told, a nearly a quarter of American households earned more than $100,000 a year, about the same percentage as those who earned below $25,000 per year. (4) While plenty of families earning that hundred grand might complain they’re not wealthy, given that they earn nearly double what the median household earns, they should think twice before complaining, even if they live in areas with high costs of living and have to work hard to save for their kids’ college tuition. While the top one percent (of course) has vast wealth, even after paying taxes, the next 19 percent, still had almost as much money as the middle 60 percent and the bottom 20 percent combined.
Why are these numbers important? Because they help us understand the reality that the entire top 20 percent of Americans—tens of millions of families—have done very well indeed over the last decade.(5) And it’s the top 20 percent that often support the policies that keep the one percent so flush, hoping that they too will become millionaires or billionaires.
The focus on just the top one percent also allows the 20 percent to deny their role in all that’s wrong with the country, smugly blaming those that are even richer for all of society’s ills. That’s why you could see multi-million dollar brownstones or luxury cars in well-to-do Park Slope, Brooklyn with a sign saying, “We are the 99%” in their windows. That slogan makes them feel virtuous and whitewashes away whatever role they—or their family—may have played in increasing inequality in America. When the sub-billionaire wealthy publicly place themselves in the lower 99 percent, it allows them, in their own minds at least, to be in the same boat as their plumbers and the lady behind the counter at the DMV, and they are better able to convince themselves they are one of the “good guys” (whoever they are) and that they play a very different role in society than they actually do. Even the upper middle class are doing far, far better than the poor, given that the middle 60 percent of income earners take home 45 percent of the nation’s income—while the bottom 20 percent of workers only see three percent of the nation’s total income. Three percent. The upper middle class is often just as clueless about true poverty as are the rich. They don’t want to admit it, but they too, are America’s elite.
The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign suffered a bit from another kind of elitism, which most of its supporters wouldn’t acknowledge, or even understand. The campaign and its boosters often bragged that, unlike Hillary Clinton’s “dirty Wall Street” money, the Sanders operation was small, poor, rag-tag group of revolutionaries, funded almost exclusively by millions of average Americans, as if his donors were all just run-of-the mill, middle-class, working stiffs.
But, according to Open Secrets.org, as of April 30, 2016, the Sanders campaign has raised $207 million, and spent $203 million. (6) Even including political action committees (PACs) that aided either Clinton or Sanders, Bernie actually ended up spending just about as much as Hillary during the primary season. The money the Sanders campaign spent, most of which went to TV and radio stations owned by massive multi-national corporations (with millions going to a few top campaign consultants) (7), equaled federal spending for 35,000 Pell grants. By spending far more money on media advertising than grassroots organizing, Sanders further limited the ability of his campaign to build a true long-term progressive movement.
Yes, most of Sanders’ huge treasure chest came from relatively small contributions, but a whopping $80 million came in donations of $200 or more. While few of his donors were likely hedge fund managers, few were paupers either. Out of the top ten employers of Bernie donors, seven are the very kind huge corporation Sanders routinely blasts: Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of Google), Microsoft Corp, Apple Inc., Amazon.com, Kaiser Permanente, Boeing Co, and AT&T Inc. (8)
The Sanders campaign, like Obama strategists in 2008, sold the media on the narrative that the campaign was far less dependent of donations from the wealthy than it really was.
Of the top six zip codes from which Sanders received donations, all were wealthy areas in San Francisco, New York, and Seattle, plus Burlington, Vermont in Sanders’ home state. Excluding Burlington, the average income in these zip codes was $91,160, a full 70 percent higher than the median US family income. While most of Sanders’s donors weren’t likely in the top one percent, it is clear they were primarily in the top 25 percent. They may not have been “limousine liberals,” but they were often Prius faux-socialists. The vast majority of the Sanders campaign donations were made online, requiring credit cards, but a third of Americans, mostly low-income ones, don’t have credit cards. (9) Bottom line: it is likely that very few of his contributions came from the true working class, and even fewer came from low-income voters.
Like Springsteen fans, Sanders fans likely to think of themselves as average, working-class Joes, when very few of them actually are. (10)
The Sanders campaign and most of its supporters were never able to grapple with the reality that they couldn’t come close to winning the majority of nonwhite voters, or the majority of very poor voters. (11) Many Sanders champions were denial of this reality since many people they personally knew that were either low-income or of color, were Sanders supporters, just as liberal supporters of Walter Mondale in 1984, couldn’t believe that he lost to Reagan in 49 states, because everyone they personally knew was for Mondale. (Likewise, some Hillary supporters were loath to admit—and concede the importance of—the reality that she was getting creamed among voters under 30, including women.)
Why did the Occupy and Sanders movements mostly fail to catch fire with low-income voters and people of color? The main reason, I think, is that Americans who are especially oppressed on a daily basis have very little patience for pie-in-the-sky, theoretical notions of “revolutions” that fail to realistically explain how their living conditions will be concretely improved. They’ve seen lofty promises come and go over generations and are far more interested in tangible, real-world results. Yet neither Occupy nor the Sanders campaign were able to convince these potential voters that they could deliver on their high-minded goals.
Even worse, when it became clear that low-income voters and people of color favored Hillary, some Bernie lovers patronizingly blasted those populations for being too dumb or too easily duped to understand what was in their own self-interest. Yeah, low-income Americans, and people of color do really love it when upper-middle-class white people claim to know their interests better than they do. Despite having marched for civil rights decades earlier, Sanders himself continued to be a bit tone deaf on some racial issues, even once implying that all black people lived in poor ghettos—a “racial land mine,” to quote Kirsten West Savali, writing for The Root, (12) a gaff which haunted Sanders’ campaign.
These disconnects exhibited by both Sanders and the Occupy Movement are emblematic of the serious class and racial divides, even among progressives. Upper-middle-class white progressives need to engage in deep soul searching—and ever deeper listening—to learn from low-income families and people of color as to why the sides are so far apart. And older progressives need to engage in similar soul searching and listening to learn why younger voters are so disconnected from the current political system.
Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America.
(1) Christopher Hayes, The Twilight of The Elites, 2012, Crown Publishers, pages 22 and 154.
(2) Robert Frank, “More millionaires than ever are living in the U.S.,” CNBC, March 10, 2015,
(accessed March 12, 2016).
(3) Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, 2015, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, page xxii.
(4) Carmen Devas-Walt and Bernadette D. Proctor, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2014,” Current Population Reports, U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration. U.S. Census Bureau,
Issued September 2015,
(5) Full disclosure: My 2016 income placed me in the top 20 percent of wage earners, although near the bottom of that group. Now, if you buy ten million copies of my new book to distribute to all your friends, you can get me closer to the top one percent, at which time, I will take back all the mean things I have said about them.
(6) Bernie Sanders, Candidate Summary, 2016 Cycle, OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics, (accessed June 14, 2016).
(7) Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy, “Sanders is biggest spender of 2016 so far — generating millions for consultants,” The Washington Post, April 29, 2016, (accessed June 14, 2016).
(8) The “socialist” Sanders campaign kept bragging about its fundraising prowess. Online donors to the Sanders campaign online needed either a credit card or PayPal. Even if a small percent of that went to credit card processing fees, that means that the bank and credit card company-hating Bern-ers gave millions of dollars to those dreaded entities.
(9) For the record, I have many friends (at least until they read this piece) who were fervent Bernie supporters. I am not criticizing them as people – I greatly respect that most of them are dedicated progressives – but I am challenging Sanders-ism as a movement to acknowledge what it truly was and wasn’t—and what needs to be done better in the future to achieve the “revolution” they seek.
(10) https://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/contrib.php?cycle=2016&id=N00000528&type=f (accessed June 17, 2016)
(11) Yes, Sanders often did well with the relatively small sub-group of minority voters under 30 but the actual vote totals prove he got creamed in the overall minority vote. For example, in the New York primary, here are three very low-income and overwhelmingly non-white election districts and the margin by which Sanders lost to Hillary: Washington Heights, Manhattan ED #11 (44 points); East Concourse, Bronx, ED #56 (52 points); East New York, Brooklyn, ED #77 (67 points). When you are losing by 44 to 67 points in such neighborhoods, you simply must admit that your message is failing to connect.
(12) Kirsten West Savali, “Bernie Sanders’ ‘Ghetto’ Gaffe Gave Clinton Supporters the Ammunition They Needed,” The Root, March 8, 2016, (accessed March 19, 2016).