When Elizabeth Warren went on MSNBC to deny that she was a member of the 1 percent despite her nearly 15 million dollar net worth, the denial had a cultural element to it. Despite being a millionaire, Warren did not see herself as “wealthy”.
The current debate over the 1 percent and the 99 percent is notable mainly for the shifting boundaries that are not based on economics, but on identity. For all its ‘Power to the People’ antics American liberalism is not a movement of struggling people, there is a reason why the word limousine so often comes before liberal. Its roots lie in an upper class New England strata that relentlessly fought against Southern Baptists and working class Catholic immigrants. Those roots define modern day liberals much more so than the Jacksonian populism that they occasionally try to imitate.
The American liberal is not a populist, he is still a New England preacher, but without a religion to preach. He has a great faith in the virtues of an ordered moral society, even if that ordered moral society would have been completely incomprehensible and unacceptable to his forebears. It is a society based on the virtues of tolerance and the rule of the enlightened.
The inflow of the European left has brought in a strain of power to the people populism, but that has not made the American liberal take seriously the notion that the people whose rights he defends are his intellectual or social equals, no more than the 19th century New York Republicans patting African-Americans on the head while stomping on the Irish viewed either group as equals.