The bizarre and fascinating events in the financial world are something more than a typical stock bubble. Although the full picture is complex, at its core the GameStop saga is a self-conscious class struggle between ordinary investors, as represented by users of the Reddit forum “WallStreetBets,” and the financial Establishment, in this case hedge fund managers. The grievance is that powerful players, such as hedge funds, have long treated the stock market as their personal plaything, manipulating prices at the expense of small-time investors. Denizens of WallStreetBets were interested in making money, and lots of it, but there was also a pronounced element of revenge in the so-called “short squeeze.” Writing for the Washington Post, David Lynch quotes a 30-something investor who had suffered severe financial setbacks during the Great Recession: “These [expletive] owe me. I’m taking what’s mine.” A former hedge fund manager notes that the conflict is “generational,” remarking that “This is millennials and ‘Gen Z’ screaming at boomers.”
Commentators have linked the financial warfare between Reddit and Wall Street to broader social trends. Appearing on the January 28 episode of the popular financial podcast Bloomberg Surveillance, Steen Jakobsen, CIO of Saxo Bank, noted the“social revolution … between the haves and the have-nots.” Ben Winck at Business Insider is not alone in comparing WallStreetBets to Occupy Wall Street, a decentralized anti-establishment movement arising in the wake of the 2008 housing market crisis that brought down the global economy. Inevitably, the term “populism” has made an appearance in discussions of the GameStop short squeeze. Lynch refers to the stock market upheavals as a “populist uprising,” although he also notes that some wealthy investors have made plenty of money from recent events as well.
WallStreetBets is of a piece with Occupy Wall Street, but also with the prior Tea Party movement on the right, as well as with the fanatical support that “populist” political figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have garnered. The theme that connects these seemingly disparate movements is the sense that elites have rigged American economic and political systems to serve themselves (hence the 1% versus the 99% rhetoric that has gained a great deal of traction on both ends of the political spectrum). Populists, both left and right, agree that the establishment is hopelessly corrupt and must be smashed, even if they virulently disagree amongst each other over what, exactly, should replace it.
Many American Christians are struggling to grasp the profound and fast-moving changes rolling their society. On the one hand, Scripture is clearly sympathetic with the marginalized over and against the rich and powerful. On the other hand, the American brand of anti-elitism easily takes on a proudly anti-intellectual bent - and, apparently, morphs into bizarre conspiracy theories. As we think through these pressing issues, however, we Christians need to remember our most pressing societal duty: to bring the good news and physical aid to the truly impoverished among us.
The truth is that American populism does not really represent the actual poor. The GameStop saga, for instance, is less “rich vs poor” and more “rich vs middle.” Unsurprisingly, people in the lowest-income brackets are unlikely to have any kind of exposure to the stock market. According to a 2020 report by Pew Research, while a little over half of American families have at least some stake in the stock market, only 19% of families earning less than $35,000 do. And only a small share of American families (about 14%) invest in individual stocks (e.g., GameStop), as opposed to having investments tied up in employer-sponsored retirement plans.
The same trend of non-participation by the poor applies to politics. Historically, poor people have been significantly less likely to vote. A 2020 Columbia University study found that 46% of eligible voters with family incomes less than twice the Federal poverty line cast a ballot in 2016, compared with 68% of eligible voters with family incomes over twice that line. Thus, a decent majority of America’s poor voted for no one in 2016. This finding is in keeping with longer historical trends. Turnout amongst low income people was considerably higher in 2020, but they broke decisively for Joe Biden over the “populist” Donald Trump, who did worse even among white people with low incomes than in the previous presidential election.
The path of wisdom for Christians, then, is to avoid investing too much emotional energy into praising or condemning “populist uprisings,” and instead to focus on the mission Jesus Christ has given us: to preach good news to everyone, and especially the poor (Mt 11:5), while at the same time figuring out creative, locally specific ways to combat poverty and bring dignity to the impoverished. That mission does not change regardless of who occupies the White House or Wall Street, and followers of Jesus cannot afford to become distracted.
David Clay lives in Saint Louis, MO, with his wife and two daughters. He is currently earning his stockbroker license and is an active volunteer at his church.