Hooray for envy!

A few weeks ago, Sarah Palin caused a stir for a comment she made on the radio calling Barbara and George H.W. Bush “blue-bloods who want to pick and choose their winners instead of allowing competition.” Palin was striking back at Barbara Bush for dissing the former Alaska governor as just another pretty face on “The Larry King Show.” Palin probably doesn’t envy Mrs. Bush (why should she, she’s a rich and privileged woman herself now) but she shrewdly uses others’ envy of elites like the Bushes to stoke her fans. In politics, such maneuvers are called “class warfare,” and when convenient, both sides use it and/or decry its divisive nature.

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.