The Politics of Envy

If you’re anything like me you constantly daydream about being wealthy enough to own cool stuff like a palatial country estate and a private jet and a chocolate fountain.

It’d be sweet, right?

Well, it would be sweet, unless you’re running for elected office, then that all “rich person” stuff might not be so great.

In fact, such glittering assets could actually be a potential liability.


Because one person’s success can often times cause other people to experience an unpleasant emotion known as “envy.”

Envy, according to the dictionary definition, is a “feeling of discontented resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions or luck.”

And envy is more than just a passive resentment.

An envious person will also actively wish and hope for bad things to happen to the person being envied.

As a Spanish proverb put it, “Envy is thin because it bites but never eats.”

And the mere fact that we have proverbs about envy indicates that it’s always been part of the human condition.

In his influential book, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, sociologist Helmut Schoeck noted that in primitive cultures it was widely assumed that inordinate success went hand in hand with black magic.

In other words, if a farmer enjoyed a harvest far richer than his neighbors, he would be suspected of employing witchcraft.

Hence, successful people in those days were scorned or cursed or ostracized.

Accordingly, successful hunters or farmers in primitive societies would often hide their good fortune so as not to arouse bad feelings against them.

Of course, today, as the “Panama Papers” incident makes clear, it’s a lot harder to hide good fortune.

Nor are modern people any less likely to feel envious.

Indeed Schoeck calls envy the “central problem of man’s social existence.”

And certainly envy is also central to politics.

For instance, what some politicians call “social justice”, i.e. “taxing the rich”, or “redistributing income,” is at its root an idea that essentially taps into our basic feelings of envy.

After all, who doesn’t want to “stick it” to those snobby rich people?

And, of course, a wealthy person running for office is extremely vulnerable to envy-based bad feelings, feelings which can be whipped up by their opponents.

Successful American businessman Mitt Romney and acclaimed Canadian academic Michael Ignatieff, are two prominent one-time politicians, for example, whose careers were undermined by feelings of envious resentment.

One was considered too rich; the other, too educated.

Luckily, however, it’s possible for politicians to escape this envy trap.

Consider Donald Trump, a billionaire who’s running for the office of US President.

As a wealthy man, he should be a prime target of envious feelings.

Yet Trump’s success to date has stemmed from his remarkable ability to deflect feelings of envy away from him and to direct them toward others, i.e. Republican Party and media elites.

In short, people support Trump because they see him as a guy who will take those powerful establishment types down a peg or two.

Another politician who has so far avoided the pitfalls of envy is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a man who, let’s not forget, was born to affluence and privilege.

He has dealt with the envy problem not by deflection, but by distraction.

What I mean is Trudeau acts and talks and behaves, not like a millionaire or like a snooty socialite, but like a Hollywood celebrity.

And in our society, we don’t envy celebrities; we worship them.

Anyway, my point is if you’re blessed with riches and if you want to get into politics, it pays to beware the bite of envy.

This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times. 

1 Comment on “The Politics of Envy

  1. Isn’t envy the cradle of socialism? Everyone should be equal. No one should be allowed to better themselves.

    Envy is responsible for much of the woes of today. Achievers are barely tolerated, and those who came to these shores hundreds of year ago, must now apologise for colonialism and the perceived destruction of the idyllic life that the people enjoyed before.

    Progress is definitely not cool.

    In Africa prosperity is still seen as witchcraft, even among those who many years ago bade farewell to a traditional lifestyle. Muti and witchdoctors remain popular.

    Envy in politics is here to stay, except when one can achieve celebrity status. We all bear witness to that.

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