The Politics of Envy


As progressive politicians rediscover that envy can be a path to power, they are trying to outdo each other in their promises to punish those they have defined as the “super-rich.” Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has proposed a “wealth tax” on those with over $50 million in assets. 

Warren calls the rich “freeloaders” because she believes they are not paying their “fair share” and warns that there would be no escape from her proposed tax. She promises a one-time tax penalty of $50 million on those who try to renounce their U. S. citizenship, and dramatic increases in funding for the IRS to conduct annual audits on the “super rich.”

The tragedy of this emotional appeal to the envious is that the “wealth tax” guarantees that there will be less wealth as people will find ways to avoid paying that tax.  Winston Churchill warned of exactly that in a speech to the House of Commons on October 22, 1945, when he declared that “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” For Churchill, “Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.”

For the truly envious, the equal sharing of miseries is a small price to pay for the satisfaction of bringing down the rich.  In “When Did Everyone Become a Socialist?” a recent cover story in New York Magazine, the author, Simon van Zuylen-Wood described a gathering of the Democratic Socialists of America where people call each other “comrade” and when someone brought up the topic of the triumph of “banishing” the Amazon headquarters from the City, those gathered celebrated the ability to “build something ungodly in Queens.”  When asked what they might build, a guillotine was one of the responses.

The guillotine has a special significance for socialists because it brings to mind the ultimate revenge that was exacted by the poor against the rich during France’s bloody Reign of Terror in 1793 when the Jacobins executed nobles, priests and wealthy landowners because they were viewed as “enemies of the Revolution.” In keeping with the French Revolution theme, this month’s print issue of the socialist magazine Jacobin, contains a cover story on Bernie Sanders entitled “I, President: And How I Ended Poverty” and an essay on “How to Win Socialism in America.”

In addition to the print version, there is an online Jacobin blog with articles on “The Lives the Free Market Took,” and another on “The Paranoid, Reactionary Dreams of Ronald Reagan,” which suggests that President Reagan’s “hyper-nationalist worldview grew out of the paranoid jingoism of postwar America.”   

The late-President Reagan is becoming a target of hate for the current crop of Democratic Socialists. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), tapped into the envious resentment of her constituents in the 14th District of Queens and the Bronx last November when she ran on a socialist platform and defeated ten-term Representative Joseph Crowley.

Now that she has a national audience, Ocasio-Cortez has escalated her attempts to use envy to divide the country, suggesting that former President Ronald Reagan was a racist who “pitted white working-class Americans against brown and black working-class Americans to screw over all working-class Americans.” Ocasio-Cortez promises a federal job to every resident who wants to work, adequate housing, healthy food and “access to nature.” She has perfected the appeal to envy that promises to punish the rich and empower the poor.

Ocasio-Cortez has surrounded herself with like-minded resentful aides like legislative assistant Dan Riffle who goes by the Twitter handle: “Every Billionaire is a Policy Failure.” In a profile piece in the Washington Post, Riffle was described as having been “raised by a single mother in trailer parks and public housing in eastern Tennessee becoming an avowed foe of the ultrawealthy.”  He told reporters that when he first started working on Capitol Hill, he thought Democratic aides would be activists and idealists. However, he found that they were people who grew up on the Upper West Side and went to Ivy League schools: “These are people who don’t think big and aren’t here to change the world. They only conceive of the world as it is, and work within that frame.  They don’t think, “Here’s the system; it sucks and we should burn it down.”

As Zuylen-Wood points out in her New York Magazine article, today’s new socialists are not just incremental welfare statists.  Like the resentful Dan Riffle, they are working in government to “burn it down.” 

Envy is driving this movement—just as it has always driven the move to socialism.  While most campuses have resisted much of this, it is likely that as the 2020 primary season begins, the revolution will again reach the campus. Young graduates, saddled with student debt and resentful to find that the high paying jobs they were promised may not materialize, have created a resentful and envious Millennial generation.

This is true even for some of the graduates of the Ivy League as Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s New York cover story notes that: “Democratic Socialists of America can feel like a never-ending Brown University reunion.” Envy is driving much of this.

Societies flourish when the people find ways to control envy, this most destructive emotion. But, as wealth grows, inequality grows with it and there is always the seductive appeal of revengeful revolution. Because envy is ever-present—and powerful when aroused—a society’s ability to achieve greatness depends on its ability to control this highly destructive emotion.

As the presidential primary season begins, progressive politicians will pander to envy, promising to remove envy’s evil effects by removing its targets.  They are already promising to destroy the rich. But, because envy creates its own targets no matter how equal the society, there will always be something to envy.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion ; and The Politics of Deviance.

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