One percenters, stop embarrassing yourselves!

Story highlights

  • Prominent venture capitalist compares war on the 1% with Nazi treatment of Jews
  • John MacIntosh: How can the 1% avoid embarrassing Perkins-like incidents?
  • He says while you can be pro-gun or pro-choice, it's impossible to be pro-inequality
  • MacIntosh: If you sympathize with 99%, show it; if you don't, better to keep quiet

Tom Perkins, a well-known venture capitalist, got himself in hot water when he compared the "progressive war on the 1%" with Nazis' treatment of Jews in World War II. Although Perkins apologized for his comments, he stood by his main point that anger at the rich is a wrong and dangerous attitude.

It's easy to dismiss Perkins' sentiment as nothing more than the ill-advised ravings of a cantankerous, thin-skinned old man. But it also illustrates just how bizarre things have gotten for some wealthy people, who find themselves in a new socially constructed category and on the wrong side of a resurgent but elusive political ideal, facing off against mesmerizing populist adversaries.

How can the "1%" make the best of the situation they're in and reduce the likelihood of more embarrassing Perkins-like incidents? Here's my advice.

First, remember that the 1% is an almost meaningless moniker for a multifarious bunch of people who differ greatly in political leaning, wealth, occupation and ethics.

John MacIntosh

Yes, you are luckier, better educated and perhaps a little bit smarter than the rest, but that hardly makes you a monolithic class. And while there are certainly scoundrels, sociopaths, wealth addicts and Ayn Rand-devotees in your midst, these bad apples are far from the norm despite the attention they garner. You're really just like everybody else, only richer.

However, as "welfare moms," "urban youth" and "unionized teachers" have long since discovered, resistance is futile once a pejorative new category bursts onto the scene. And you'll only make things worse by trying to introduce something better (Perkins tried "successful 1%," which is even more objectionable because it implies the "unsuccessful 99%").

So you're stuck with the 1% label. But rather than wax nostalgic for the honorific categories of yesteryear - "global elite," "electronic herd" and "mass affluent" -- try to remember that "sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you" while waiting calmly for the rhetorical storm to pass. And please don't succumb to self-pity for suffering the indignity of guilt by association; name-calling is nothing like stop-and-frisk, job discrimination or profiling. Toughen up!

Second, for all the easy talk about reducing inequality, its corollary -- equality -- is the most complex and controversial social ideal. Is it equality of opportunity or income? At a moment in time or across generations? Why is it important over and above the goal of helping those at the bottom?

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But what makes equality difficult to define philosophically makes it expedient politically, because its vagueness and complexity allow it to be offered as a panacea for almost any problem. Just accept that while it's possible to be pro-gun or pro-choice, it's impossible to be pro-inequality.

And when cornered at a cocktail party, please don't ask opponents to tell you what equality really means or to offer a coherent explanation of its causes and effects. Equality is the zeitgeist for a period when many people feel under pressure and shafted by a system that they think you represent. If you sympathize, show it. If you don't, keep your mouth shut.

Third, you need a grass-roots strategy for dealing with Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio and the other emerging populist rock stars. It simply won't do to continue relying on the octogenarian trinity -- Warren Buffett, George Soros and John Bogle -- to be your friendly faces. Nor can the job be outsourced to Third Way staffers or lefty celebrities.

To meet the populist media challenge will take some courage by a younger generation of 1% Democrats with charisma and a willingness to seek common ground with the populists even though by doing so they'll be viewed by many friends and colleagues as traitors to their class.

Rather than put your head in the sand or stay safely in the limousine, get out there and make your case in the street, on TV, in bars and on the Internet. But be realistic, for in the current environment the best you can do may be to get yourselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists.

Finally, be invigorated by this moment in the spotlight! You have status to engage politically simply by virtue of your membership in a category - the 1% - that did not even exist until 2011. But political winds are fickle and may soon blow you off the stage. As Oscar Wilde said, "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

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