How America’s celebrity obsession weakens the fight against inequality

Professor of Law, Author
Deepening inequality is escalating a tribal conflict between the haves and the have-nots in America. But it's not playing out in the most obvious way: the beef of working-class, blue-collar Americans isn't with Manhattan-born billionaires and Instagram influencers—it's with garden variety professional elites. "If you look at the surveys, Pew Foundation studies, you find that most Americans, including working-class Americans, actually love capitalism," says Yale professor Amy Chua. "They don’t want socialism. They still want a system where if you can work hard you can strike it rich, and they want it to be fine to be rich." Why did low-income America elect a billionaire president? It's no puzzle, says Chua. Despite the data on inequality and the dismal stats on upward mobility, Americans are still sold on the American Dream. It's the narrative peddled by American Idol, the Kardashians, and jet-setting celebrities—that you too can somehow climb the ladder. The richest of the rich are adored, not scorned. Chua points out a glaring irony: while the overly privileged Occupy Wall Street movement was trying to raise up America's poor, America's poor were flocking to the enormously popular prosperity gospel. Its creed? That God blesses the wealthy, and if you pray hard enough the money will come. "The desire for the American Dream is so powerful that people will cling to it even when they have no chance," says Chua. It's that dream that sustains inequality from the bottom up. Amy Chua is the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.

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TRANSCRIPT

Amy Chua: Well, I happen to be a fan of democracy. I think it has flaws, but there was just no other better system for one simple reason and that is: you can often get a beneficent dictator. A lot of people think that Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore was such a person. He was not corrupt. He actually alleviated a lot of the ethnic conflict.

But here’s the problem: You can never ensure that the dictator will stay beneficent. The better thing about democracy is that, eventually, you can vote them out. If you don’t like the policies, if you don’t like the leaders, you can vote them out. 

So, on balance, I think that democracy is the best system. What I think is wrong is that America treats democracy like a panacea. We romanticize it. We think somehow that oh, there’s all this civil war and tribalism and sectarian warfare there—let’s just have some elections! What they don’t realize is that in very divided countries—ethnically divided, tribally divided—democracy can sometimes catalyze group conflict rather than softening it.

A lot of people have puzzled over how so many blue-collar and working-class Americans could possibly have voted for a billionaire born to wealth, born in Manhattan. But it’s actually not a puzzle at all. What a lot of working-class Americans resent is the idea that there’s a rigged system.

That there are these people—arrogant people—controlling the levers of power from afar, somewhere in D.C. and on Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

If you look at the surveys, Pew Foundation studies, you find that most Americans, including working-class Americans, actually love capitalism. They don’t want socialism. They still want a system where if you can work hard you can strike it rich, and they want it to be fine to be rich.

Studies show that many working-class Americans actually resent the professional elites more: the very polished, well-educated, snobby professors and journalists and pundits speaking on TV, and that they don’t actually dislike the Kardashians so much—or the billionaires that are jet-setting around. That’s why shows like 'The Apprentice' are so popular.

The Occupy movement did many important things, highlighting the urgency of inequality in this country. But one problem with the Occupy movement is that it was a movement that purported to want to help the poor that didn’t actually include any members of the poor. It was, overwhelmingly, an extremely privileged movement. Not necessarily wealthy, but highly educated and largely from cosmopolitan, urban areas.

And if you look at the interviews of people from other parts of the country, working-class people, blue collar people, it’s not just that they didn’t participate in these activist, anti-inequality movements. They actually were very suspicious of them, and even a little scornful. The interviews have people saying, “Don’t these people have jobs? Don’t they have to work? I’m working three jobs just to put food on the table! How can they be marching and protesting all the time?”

Now that’s a little unfair because a lot of these activist movements have done tremendous good, but it is also true that it is a privilege to have the time to take off work and to do these things.

So there’s a real schism in group identities.

A lot of America’s elites, while they were campaigning for Bernie or Hillary, didn’t really connect with so many of the lower income Americans because, in part, they had a snobby view towards them.

But the point is that a lot of America's political elites, the establishment elites, just really didn’t bother to get to understand the people that supposedly they were trying to help.

It’s amazing to contrast the Occupy movement with the prosperity gospel. The irony is just glaring.

So Occupy was a movement championing, supposedly, the underclasses, but largely driven by elites. The prosperity gospel is a hugely popular movement in America, one of the most powerful religious movements in the United States, that is very largely populated by disadvantaged Americans—including our most disadvantaged minorities. African Americans and Hispanic Americans are flocking to the prosperity gospel.

What is their creed? That God blesses the wealthy. That being rich is divine and that if you pray for wealth hard enough, God will give it to you. And this contrast just shows the tribal chasm between America's haves and have-nots.

You have people purporting to want to help the other side and yet actually scorning the very movements that those people actually belong to.

We have a strange relationship with celebrity culture in America. And in some ways, you could see the victory of Donald Trump as Donald Trump tapping into this obsession with celebrities. It’s almost like he’s created a kind of billionaire populism where he’s tapping into this desire for a lot of working-class people to rise in a system where they can no longer rise—where there’s so much inequality that they can’t just make it with hard work, and they romanticize that. They think, “You know what? If I go on American Idol or The Voice or Shark Tank maybe I can hit it big.” And they actually glorify all the Desperate Housewives or the Kardashians or the celebrity musicians and actresses. These are beloved figures. They’re not hated at all. It’s like the royal family in England.

The desire for the American Dream is so powerful that people will cling to it even when they have no chance. Even when the American Dream turns their backs on people, mocks them. A lot of Americans would sooner turn on immigrants, outsiders, even reason itself than turn on the American Dream.

A lot of people think why is this happening now, you know. What’s going on with our society? Well, it’s always been there. A lot of these issues have always been there. There have always been these male bosses that have done these terrible things. So it’s not like it’s all happening now. It’s just that finally certain groups voices are allowed to be heard.

It’s the same with a lot of diversity issues, you know. People will say, why now are there so many minorities complaining on campuses or on this organization? It used to be so smooth. Things used to work so well.

Well, that’s because so many voices used to be suppressed. So, in a way, I think it’s healthy what’s often experienced as turbulence and chaos—“oh my gosh, everything’s going haywire”—is actually a healthy rising of certain voices that historically have not been allowed to speak. And there are lots of different groups. It’s along all different kinds of lines—gender, race, ethnicity—it’s everything.