The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics: Envy

The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics: Envy

By Sean Braswell


Because the only thing worse in politics than your own misfortune is your opponents’ good fortune.

By Sean Braswell

Part of “The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics,” a special series in which OZY’s Sean Braswell examines the literal and metaphorical vices that grease the rails of American government. Get caught up with an exploration of gluttonylustprideenvywrathgreed and sloth.

Before he exited the presidential race earlier this year, and despite being the acting governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie had more or less been living in the state of New Hampshire. Trailing considerably in the polls, and with time running out before the state’s key Republican primary, Christie decided to take aim at the candidate whose rise had been as unexpected as his own fall, and whose scripted persona and lack of experience seemed the antithesis of the governor’s prosecutorial eloquence and lengthy record. 

And so, desperate for a breakout performance at the final debate before the primary — and to topple the man he had taken to calling “the boy in the bubble” on the campaign trail — Christie went straight for the jugular of Florida senator Marco Rubio, hounding him for regurgitating the same “25-second memorized speech,” as a flustered Rubio continued to deliver canned lines in the face of Christie’s rhetorical onslaught. (Christie’s spokesman didn’t respond to our request for a comment.)

Envy … is a double-edged sword, and for every winning parry it provokes, it can also result in a self-inflicted wound.

Politics is a cutthroat and combative arena, and elections are a zero-sum game that can stir resentment toward a competitor’s good fortune, leading to outcomes both productive and entertaining. Envy explains a lot about the dynamic in Christie’s epic smackdown of Rubio; it “erupted in Christie’s effective attack at the New Hampshire debate,” says John J. Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. And as the philosopher Immanuel Kant once put it, envy aims “at destroying others’ good fortune” — which can be a pretty good way to describe a politician’s aims as well.

The Road to the White House Is Paved With Envy

Envy, like most political vices, is a double-edged sword, and for every winning parry it provokes, it can also result in a self-inflicted wound. Two things, according to Lyndon B. Johnson, make politicians act more stupidly than anything else: sex and envy. Turns out, LBJ had plenty of experience with both. In comparing his womanizing conquests to those of his political rival John F. Kennedy, Johnson once boasted, as if to prove his own point, “I have had more women by accident than he has had on purpose.”

But it was Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, who best embodied the consequences of political envy. Born into a hardworking Quaker family, Nixon was a high-achieving young man, but one plagued by self-doubt, even as he bested his wealthier peers at institutions like Duke Law School. Envy was “a major driver of Nixon’s whole life,” says Pitney. “He saw people of more privileged backgrounds having a much easier time, and eventually that envy curdled into something more sinister.”

It was a chip that would stay lodged on Nixon’s shoulder even after he attained the highest office in the land — and listening to him complain, as British journalist Peregrine Worsthorne once observed, was “rather like listening to a man who has won the lottery grumbling about not having had enough pocket money as a child.” A similar but countervailing urge can be seen in Donald Trump, a man who has never wanted for wealth and privilege but who, says Pitney, is driven by a need for respect and by “his envy of people who have automatic respect.”

Learn more about the historic candidacies of past presidential and vice presidential hopefuls in The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY — airing this Tuesday at 8/7c on PBS — that celebrates the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth.

How to Motivate a Bureaucrat

Sometimes envy in politics stems from a disconnect between status and income, and even the most powerful can covet what their neighbors possess. Absurd though it sounded when Hillary Clinton claimed she and Bill were “dead broke” upon leaving the White House in 2000, it makes a modicum of sense when your political and social orbits include the rarefied stratosphere of billionaires like Trump.

It’s a pernicious comparison, one that travels much further down the income spectrum — particularly in places like Washington D.C. New York Times columnist David Brooks famously labeled this malady that afflicts high-status, low-income functionaries Status-Income Disequilibrium (aka SID). “Consider the plight,” writes Brooks, of the general who commands 100,000 soldiers but drives a Honda Accord, or “of poor John Sununu, who ruled the world when he was White House chief of staff but had to feed, educate and house eight children on $125,000 a year.”

Fortunately, in a place like the Beltway, where high status is seldom matched by a high salary in the public sector, SID can be the fuel that fires up the government’s rank and file. “What do average Washingtonians want?” Pitney once posited in Reason magazine. “Better job titles, bigger offices, richer perks and more one-on-one contact with the powerful.”

The Politics of Envy

Envy, however, is not just what propels contenders to victory in the political game — it can also be a strategic card to be played. After winning the New Hampshire primary in 2012, eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney accused President Obama of dividing Americans with “the bitter politics of envy.” Such a charge, often labeled “class warfare,” has become a popular rallying cry among conservatives who believe the liberal focus on economic inequality unjustly targets successful Americans like Romney for their hard-earned success.

But liberals hardly have a monopoly on the profitable business of envy-stoking. It is an emotion that candidates of all political stripes tap into each election cycle to galvanize voters. What is Trump’s signature credo, “Make America Great Again” — deployed by generations of Republican candidates like Ronald Reagan — except a device for making voters hanker for a bygone era by creating envy of prior generations?

Directing the electorate’s envy toward some mythical past or a cardboard “one-percenter” may work, but perhaps we should be refocusing our envy on the more productive political systems enjoyed by other nations (notwithstanding Trump’s praise for the “far smarter” leaders of Russia and China). Still, as demonstrated by the failed presidential candidacies of reformers from Ralph Nader to Lawrence Lessig, there are few political points to be scored in that arena — and politicians are always keeping score of who’s got the greater advantage.