One can call it “social Darwinism”, “Calvinism” or just plain ignorance, but recent studies performed by researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and UC Berkeley are beginning to show that the social and economic classism often expressed by the world’s wealthy, may have deeper roots than previously believed.
Researchers Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner, wanted to see what common perceptions regarding social mobility, business or personal achievement and general economic opportunity, people held throughout various economic classes. By posing a series of statements to participants, the researchers asked those taking part in the study to rank the level to which they agreed or disagreed numerically on a scale between 1 and 7, with 1 meaning complete disagreement and 7 being total agreement.
The statements ranged from, “I think even if everyone wore the same clothing, people would still be able to tell your social class,” to “I feel that people get what they are entitled to have.”
What Kraus and Keltner found over the course of their studies, was that the concept of “class essentialism,” or the idea that things and people are easily categorized according to their nature (the poor are poor due to their nature, and vice-versa,) ran stronger the higher the social and economic class that study participants belonged to.
With lower and middle classes participants rating many of the more essentialist questions between 1 and 4 and the wealthy rating them higher, these studies have in many ways demonstrated what many throughout, especially American society, have known or suspected for a long time: Many of the rich and powerful believe they’re better than others by their very nature.
It is not an uncommon line to hear from those of high financial and socio-economic status, that their wealth and privilege is something earned and deserved, often citing a presumed intellect or ability that distinguishes them from the rest of the pack.
In the 1960s, psychologist Melvin Lerner developed what is commonly referred to as the “just world theory,” which states that the assumption of many is that the world is inherently just, that what one has is what one inherently deserves and that any thinking or ideas which may threaten this assumption are automatically attacked by the psychological defenses of those who have adopted this mode of thinking.
From the banksters of Wall Street who made fortunes sinking the national and global economies through shady dealings, to Congress with its members’ average net wealth sitting roughly at a million dollars a person, this disconnect from social reality is not hard to find.
Following the financial collapse, many traders and fund managers within the investment banks, some of which were the very same to come crawling to the government begging for a bailout, snickered and patted themselves on the back, still wealthy from the derivatives swaps and broken investment tools that brought the economy down, believing what they’d made, they were entitled to due to their natural cleverness and intellect.
Likewise, this same sense of entitlement and social Darwinism is equally evident in the halls of power, with Senator Rand Paul and Congressman Paul Ryan both frequently proposing policies and spending cuts aimed at punishing the poor for their poverty, in the name of encouraging competitive capitalism.
It may not be much of a leap to assert that such senses of class essentialism lend themselves well to libertarian philosophy, which itself largely dictates that poverty is a result of sloth, as opposed to any larger affecting sociological or economic conditions. This very thinking and its endless justifications for greed and self obsession has gotten so great its even rather recently driven one former, long-time devotee away from the ideology altogether.
It is possible that while many of the wealthy elite and the top 1% have quite thoroughly justified their greed and oligarchic sense of power according to some internal rationalizations, this new perspective on the divide between rich and poor serves as a grim sociological mirror for the larger matters of income inequality throughout the country.
And although that 1%’er “essentialism” is unlikely to be a hot button issue in the coming election, it does shed a new light on an old question as to whether or not the rich really, truly look down their noses at others or not. For if the evidence at hand suggests anything, it’s that despite the reality, Americans in particular are living in two very distinct worlds with two very distinct senses of what it is to be a human being on planet Earth.