Not everyone hates the richJune 7, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
Before we start predicting a coming class warfare, keep in mind that Americans may dislike inequality, but they don't all blame the wealthy.
By Nina Easton, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- After the 1987 stock market crash, the New York Times offered up a page-one obituary for a "gilded, impudent age," quoting great minds who predicted the demise of unbridled self-interest in America. Three short years later, when a recession marked the official end of the '80s, commentators (including in this magazine) predicted a "brewing revolt against the rich" and the coming of a "post-affluent society."
It's instructive in 2012 -- when words like "tinderbox" and "explosive" dot so many descriptions of class relations in the U.S. -- to revisit those cloudy crystal balls of yore. As it turned out, there was no class revolt against the '80s, the "decade of greed." In the 1990s, McMansions sprouted like kudzu across the land, the rich got filthy rich, and all that supposed nascent populist anger was lost in a swirl of mortgage-financed consumer gluttony (behavior shared by the affluent and middle class alike).
Maybe this time is different. Maybe comparisons to the outpourings in the streets of Europe are apt. Certainly today's unemployment rate dwarfs that of the 1990s, and long-term joblessness is stuck at historic highs. So is anxiety about personal economic futures. With an economy that seems paralyzed, these are scary times; the '90s weren't. But predictions of impending class warfare miss the fundamental nature of the American psyche. There is a tendency within the chattering classes to overstate the American public's disdain for affluence -- and to understate people's passion for pursuing their own wealth.
The Occupy Wall Street protests that played out last fall drew comparisons to the Arab Spring (a movement that actually toppled governments) and Europe's anti-austerity eruptions (protests that actually overshadowed OWS's biggest days here). In mid-May, OWS jumped back on the media radar screen with a "financial crimes walking tour" and Times Square rally against the big banks.
While OWS deserves credit for injecting discussion of economic inequality into the country's political bloodstream -- no small feat, it should be noted -- its calls for a "revolution" against a system that "impoverishes the 99%" hasn't exactly translated into a mass movement. And it remains unlikely to.
Historically Americans haven't shown much appetite for class strife. As professors Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs noted in their 2009 book Class War?: "While Americans are alert to inequality and support measures to reduce it ... they remain conservative by instinct ... Responsibility for an individual's economic position and life conditions rests chiefly with him- or herself." So why all the talk of revolution? "Us-vs.-them-ism" is an especially tempting theme for a media desperately looking for ways to grab our short attention spans. Therefore, much was made of a recent Pew Research poll purporting to show a sharp rise in conflicts between rich and poor.
In fact, the poll showed that public attitudes toward the wealthy remain largely unchanged -- with a near-even split between those who think the rich were born into money or connections and those who think people are rich "mainly because of their own hard work, ambition, or education." There hasn't been an increase in people's own grievances against the rich; rather, there was a 19-point increase in people saying they believe there are very strong or strong conflicts between rich and poor -- not a surprise given all the media attention to the OWS protests.
Indeed, the headline Pew produced for its research reads "For the Public, It's Not About Class Warfare, but Fairness." Pew's conclusion? While Americans are hearing more about class conflict, "there is no sense that the American people are on the verge of class conflict; they just want a better chance of achieving success themselves."
That's worth remembering as the media and politicians fuel divisions along the income scale this election year. In the 1800s, French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville was famously impressed by Americans' dedication to the idea of equality. But he was also struck by another character trait: "The love of wealth ... is at the bottom of all Americans do." On that score, times haven't changed all that much.
This story is from the June 11, 2012 issue of Fortune.