Studying elite/townspeople relations in wealthy Teton County, Wyoming

Elites have made Teton County, Wyoming a home and they have complicated relationships with local residents:

When he visits the downtown bars, “I don’t tell people that I live in a gated community. They accept me as a local,” he tells author Justin Farrell in his new book, “Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West” (Princeton University Press), out now…

According to a 2018 report from the Economic Policy Institute, the wealthiest 1 percent in Teton County bring in an annual income that’s approximately 142 times more than the other 99 percent of families in the county. The “average” per-capita income in Teton County is just over $251,000, the highest in the country, according to the US Department of Commerce, and the rest of Wyoming doesn’t even come close, with most counties ranging between $40,000 and $50,000 per year, and none going above $70,000. Coming second to Teton is Manhattan, where the average income is $194,000…

But it goes deeper than taxes. Over the last few decades, the wealthy “feel like they’ve been unfairly criticized and targeted,” Farrell says. “Because of the Occupy Wall Street movement and politicians like Bernie Sanders, attacking the rich has become part of the dominant discourse. I actually had a few people tell me that they’ve come to Teton County to escape the socialist revolution. Wyoming feels like a safe haven for them.”…

Stewart considered this relationship, and others he had with lower-income locals, to be authentic and equitable, but as Farrell points out, “his friendships are often based on economic exchange and uneven power dynamics.”…

Claire Drury, who lives in Teton County but is far from rich, has a thinly veiled disgust for her wealthy neighbors. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, the ultra-wealthy are befriending us savages while drinking a really nice 1976 Bordeaux,” she told Farrell. “It is reminiscent of all the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows, [with] the noble savages sitting there stiff as a board while their photos are being taken in some sort of sepia-toned thing.”

It is rare to find studies of the elite that includes more direct data including interviews. For a variety of reasons, sociologists tend to focus with elites in an aggregate or from a distance. And one advantage of having money and/or power is that people can exert some control of who has access to them.

And yet, this also sounds like a neighborhood or community study (albeit in a more rural area), a common feature of American sociology for over one hundred years. Even the wealthiest members of Chicago’s Gold Coast could not easily ignore the more difficult conditions just down the street from them (from the classic study The Gold Coast and the Slum). Elites do not exist outside of communities and interactions with people around them. How they get along with others – or not – is worth considering as is how these interactions affect broader communities and could affect the influential ways that elites can act.

 

 

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