The Real Politics of Envy

Whose message is actually capitalizing on envy and resentment?


Tuesday, Politico reported the latest example of — this is happening so often we need to give it a name — Plutocrat Persecution Psychosis:

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Yes, Langone is echoing fellow PPP sufferer Tom Perkins, who recently warned in The Wall Street Journal that a “Progressive Kristallnact” against the 1% is on its way. (Apparently, only being allowed to vote once — in spite of all his money — chafes on Perkins. Those of us free from the burden of vast wealth can barely hope to imagine what other persecutions he suffers.)

I could sympathize if some terrorist group were burning down mansions, or assassinating “malefactors of great wealth” as Teddy Roosevelt used to call them. But no, this Nazi-like persecution seems to consist mainly of calls to raise our low taxes on the very wealthy (and their corporations), to insist that they pay their employees a somewhat higher minimum wage, and a few rhetorical flourishes that fall far short of having the President of the United States refer to you as a malefactor of great wealth (or, as Teddy’s cousin Franklin put it a few years later “unscrupulous money changers“).

But let’s ignore the over-the-top Hitler reference — many others have taken Langone to task for that — and focus on Langone’s underlying points:

  • There is a growing politics of envy in America.
  • Liberal rhetoric about inequality is based on that envy.
  • The primary push towards envy and resentment in our politics comes from the Left.

I figure this is the venom that is supposed to stay in the public’s bloodstream after the Hitler-barb is plucked out. That’s how these things work: If Langone had compared your moustache to Hitler’s, and you denied it without calling sufficient attention to the fact that you don’t have a moustache, what would stick in the public mind is the vague sense that your moustache is probably more like Stalin’s, or maybe Ming the Merciless’.

Before addressing any of that, let’s spiff up the terminology a little: envy here is actually short for envy-based resentment. By itself, envy is just wishing that some aspect of another person’s life could be part of my life, and it isn’t necessarily destructive. (If I envy a friend’s ability to speak French, maybe I’ll go take a class.) Consumer capitalism couldn’t function without this non-destructive kind of envy. If Americans looked at the neighbor’s fancy new car and just said, “Good for him!” the economy would probably collapse or something

Resentment, on the other hand, wishes others harm, and envy-based resentment means wishing people harm because they have some advantage I wish I had. (Somebody ought to give that fancy new car a dent or two.) So, for example, as a writer I envy Stephen King’s ability to fill a complicated plot with interesting characters. But that’s benign, because I don’t resent him — I don’t wish bad things would happen to him to even the score between us. (If good things would cause him to finish his next novel faster, I’m all for them.)

This distinction is important because of course the rest of us envy the rich. (Think of all the places I would have gone if traveling were as simple as telling my pilot to fire up the jet.) But whether we resent them, and whether that resentment motivates our politics, is another matter entirely.

It’s an article of faith among the very rich that liberal policies (like progressive taxation and regulations that sometimes block the most direct path towards amassing even greater fortunes) are primarily motivated by resentment: We lesser mortals want the government to even the score a little by inflicting some pain on the lords of wealth. Part of Mitt Romney’s core message (said in almost the same words in interviews here and 11 months later here) was: “If one’s priority is to punish highly-successful people, then vote for the Democrats.” And CPAC front-runner Rand Paul echoed that sentiment in his 2014 State of the Union response:

If we allow ourselves to succumb to the politics of envy, we miss the fact that money and jobs flow to where they are welcome. If you punish successful business men and women, their companies and the jobs these companies create will go overseas.

The idea that you might just want to raise revenue by getting it from the people who would miss it the least; or that even though you have nothing against the rich personally, you think that a vast and growing gap between rich and poor is unhealthy for society … that just doesn’t figure. The only conceivable reason you might support a policy the rich don’t like is because you are burning with resentment and want to see them punished for having more than you do.

Jonathan Chait examined this claim and could find no supporting evidence — not even in columns promoting it. (That’s why Langone had to specify “with different words”. You can’t defend his point if you restrict yourself to what people are actually saying.) Politicians, no matter how liberal, are not promising to wreak vengeance on the 1%.

In practice, the politics of class emerge from the context of budgetary choices, where Democrats have positioned themselves against low taxes for the rich for the sole reason that it would come at the expense of more important fiscal priorities. … Gore, Kerry, and Obama were all making the exact same point: Clinton-era tax rates for the rich needed to stay in place not because the rich needed to be punished, but because cutting those rates would create more painful alternatives, like higher structural deficits or cuts to necessary programs.

But does that mean that resentment isn’t a factor in politics or that no one is trying to fan that flame? No, it doesn’t, because resentment-stoking is a constant drumbeat from the Right. Consider, for example, this ad that the Club for Growth ran in Wisconsin in 2011 during Governor Scott Walker’s successful campaign to bust the state employees’ unions.

All across Wisconsin, people are making sacrifices to keep their jobs. Frozen wages. Pay cuts. And paying more for health care. But state workers haven’t had to sacrifice. … It’s not fair. … It’s time state employees paid their fair share, just like the rest of us.

The ad doesn’t promise that anything good will happen to “the rest of us” if the unions are broken. You could imagine an argument similar to the Gore/Kerry/Obama point about taxes: “We’re sorry that we can’t fully fund the pensions of our hard-working teachers and other state employees, but something has to give and we’d rather keep taxes low and spend our limited resources on other priorities.” But instead, this ad is about punishing the state employees, because their unions have shielded them from the kind of employer aggression that has victimized private-sector workers; so let’s bust their union and make them suffer the way other working people suffer.

That’s pure resentment, a political movement very directly trying to “encourage and thrive on envy”. If someone knows of anything nearly that explicit coming from the Left, I’d like to see it.

Or recall the Right’s campaign against Sandra Fluke, when she had the audacity to defend ObamaCare’s contraception mandate. (Rush Limbaugh became the face of this campaign, but he was far from alone, as this timeline makes clear.) Limbaugh’s focus wasn’t that his listeners would benefit from cancelling the mandate. (That would be a hard case to make, since it’s possible that the prevented pregnancies save insurance companies more money than the contraception costs.) Instead, he pounded on the notion that Fluke is a slut: She’s having so much sex she can’t afford her contraception (as if the pill worked that way). He painted a picture in which Fluke has the kind of sex life Limbaugh’s older male listeners can only wish for, so they should want to screw that up for her.

Resentment.

Or consider the way the Right campaigns against the poor. Remember the “lucky duckies” who don’t have to pay income tax (because they’re too poor)? Or the way that Fox News made one lobster-eating surfer a symbol of all Food Stamp recipients? (Jon Stewart’s take-down of this whole campaign is priceless.) Somewhere, “America’s poor are actually living the good life” as a promo for Fox’s “Entitlement Nation” special put it — and all without working like you do. Don’t you wish you could get by without working? Don’t you want to screw the people who (you imagine) do? Take something away from them? Maybe harass them with drug tests that cost more than they save? Because the point isn’t to save money — or to do you any good at all — it’s to inflict harm on people who might be getting away with something you daydream about.

That’s the primary way the politics of resentment affects our economic debate. It’s not directed at the rich by the Left, but at the poor by the Right.

Across the board, one side is trying to encourage and thrive on envy and jealousy: It’s the Right, not the Left.

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