There are a lot of ideas out there for how to stimulate the flagging economy: tax cuts, infrastructure spending, quantitative easing. But rarely do you hear about envy.
Gregory Rodriguez would like to change that. Envy, he writes
in the Los Angeles Times, is "not just petty social comparisons; it also
pushes us to try harder, do better, match the accomplishments or wealth
of someone else we admire. In our society, envy is at least in part a
driver of economic aspiration and activity."
To prove his point, Rodriguez quotes the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed in the early 19th century how America's mix of democracy and capitalism made its citizens, however poor, envious of the rich and hopeful for a better life. Rodriguez also mentions an upcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research that distinguishes between "maliciously envious people" who channel their frustration into pulling others down and "benignly envious people" who try to pull themselves up instead. While societal conventions and religious traditions frown upon malicious envy, Rodriguez explains, highly competitive societies like America also encourage envy through prizes, competitions, and advertising.
Which brings Rodriguez to his central point: class warfare.
Citing Sarah Palin's controverisal reference to Barbara and George H.W. Bush as "blue bloods," after Barbara Bush publicly disparaged
the former Alaska governor, Rodriguez declares that Palin's shrewd use
of "others' envy of elites like the Bushes to stoke her fans" benefits
Nobody in American politics is likely to admit outright to the benefits of class warfare, but despite its fractious nature, it has powered American achievements and, ironically, equality. Throughout U.S. history, aspiring elites have sought to dethrone established elites. Think Irish pols taking on the Brahmins in early 20th century Boston. Think aspiring Jews taking on WASP hegemony in New York. Think of workers seeking to better their conditions and signing union cards while images of contemptible "fat cats" dance in their heads.
In these hard times, when dreams of economic mobility wither, we need all the motivation and hope we can get. It's not just about gaining money or material wealth ... It's about trajectory and the feeling that one has the possibility of rising to another level. We can recognize when class warfare goes too far--Glenn Beck anyone? But Palin's foray was classic Americana--down with the rich, up with the rest of us. And we may need such class warfare now more than ever.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.