Envy and self-pity, and the negative feelings that result from them, are normal human emotions. Envy and self-pity are also often connected, not only in the sense that they can arise from the same life experiences, but because they tend to reinforce each other. We have an encounter with someone who has more than we do, and simultaneously we feel sorry for ourselves and envious of the other person, and these impressions intensify the feeling that life is not fair and that the other person is undeserving of their good fortune. So in our minds we become victims of circumstances beyond our control, circumstances that unreasonably provide others with opportunities and lifestyles that we are denied.
I have recognized such feelings in my own life. At one low point the only job I could find was picking zucchini in the coastal valleys east of Watsonville, California. The work required constant bending to find ripe squash under the large and thorn-studded leaves of mature plants, breaking off appropriate-sized zucchini and putting them in a ten-gallon bucket, and carrying the bucket, when full, across several rows of plants to be emptied into a tractor-drawn trailer. This process was repeated again and again in 90-plus degree direct sunshine. The only break in this eight-hour routine was a half-hour lunch. It was, and remains, the most difficult job I have ever held, it paid minimum wage, and at the time I was living in a cheap shared apartment and driving a 15-year-old car. I was eight years out of high school and five out of the military, with no real prospects for better employment. In short, I had adequate reason to indulge in self-pity.
At the end of the last day, on my way home, I was feeling feverish and worn out and stopped to rest by sitting on the curb near a major road through Watsonville. As I waited for enough energy to continue walking to my car, my attention was drawn to a noisy group in the traffic driving by. It turned out to be five teenagers laughing, joking, riding in a new-model convertible. Add envy to my self-pity, bolstered by the assumption (likely, but never proven) that those teens had not yet begun real life, and that they would do so with advantages I had never enjoyed, and the event produced a significant wave of resentment that I have not forgotten. Not forgotten, despite the fact that I have long ago moved into a relatively comfortable middle-class income and lifestyle.
What does remind me of this incident and the related emotions are the continuing appeals and distortions employed by anti-immigrant forces in the United States. Their statements and arguments have obviously been crafted to inspire envy and self-pity and rage against an unfair system and to direct the resulting emotional response against specific (and relatively powerless) populations. In the carefully constructed worldview created by anti-immigrant rhetoric, immigrants are stealing our jobs, taking advantage of our schools and other public services, getting welfare money and food stamps, and receiving free medical care that citizens cannot obtain, and they obtain all of this despite the fact that they are undeserving, being slackers and dangerous criminals and culturally inferior. Allegations similar to these have been repeated endlessly in the conservative media and accepted uncritically by millions of adherents in spite of the fact that there is little truth in any of them.
Related facts: Undocumented immigrants mostly take jobs that our citizens do not want
(unlike me, they tend to remain in jobs such as agricultural fieldwork and food
processing and sporadic construction their entire lives). Their children do go to our
schools, but they pay taxes that help support them. They rarely ask for government
benefits or welfare, even earned unemployment payments; few of them have the required
documentation. As for health care, they are only eligible for emergency-room care,
which is the exact same option that any low-income uninsured citizen can receive.
Finally, they are almost entirely hard-working people who, statistics show, are
involved in fewer crimes per capita than citizens commit.
Many of the allegations made about immigrants are familiar to anyone who has listened to the rhetoric of another continuing lengthy conservative campaign, the one against programs that make up the “safety net” for citizens in poverty. In this right-wing formulation, poor people are culturally inferior, slackers or “takers”, members of a “culture of poverty” who are themselves responsible for their fate and who don’t deserve to receive benefits paid for by responsible taxpayers. They supposedly take advantage of programs such as welfare, food stamps, and emergency medical care, often through fraud. Again, many conservatives tend to accept these ideas uncritically despite the fact that virtually none of them are supported by statistics.
Whether the target is undocumented immigrants or citizens in poverty, the conservative propaganda is similar, and it is designed to maximize the emotional responses animated by the combination of envy and self-pity. It also takes advantage of what is called “fundamental attribution error”, the tendency for people to excuse their own difficulties and behavior as the result of circumstances, while seeing the difficulties and behavior of others as representative of their character. The message is, in short: “There are people out there who are inferior to you and who deserve their fate, but who are getting benefits free, benefits that you have to struggle to earn and pay for.” It is a powerful message. It incites strong resentment in people who don’t have the job or income they want or the one they feel they deserve, and who have also repeatedly been told (by the same propagandists) that they are paying more in taxes than necessary. It also builds on resentment and fear of people who are different, those whose culture or race or national origin or religion sets them apart. And it stokes the fear that people have no control over the system that is so unfair to them, the system referenced by the phrase “take back our country”. Conservatives who have accepted this message are repeatedly engulfed by the same emotional responses that I felt when I saw those teenagers in the convertible. This explains why so many of them have verbally (and sometimes violently) attacked Mexicans or Muslims (or similar “others”) in public settings. Their envy and fear leads to another four-letter word: hate.
The similarity between my experience and theirs is that, in both cases, our emotional responses are the result of broad assumptions about the “others” and the unfairness of life. I resented the teens in the car without any real evidence regarding the actual conditions of their lives, and conservatives similarly resent safety net programs and immigrants based on false generalities. I recognize and understand the sources of their enmity.
The differences between us, however, are much more significant. My resentment was, and at times continues to be, directed toward undeserved wealth and privilege. As a result, I favor reductions in economic and power inequalities. Modern conservative resentment, on the other hand, is directed at people who have less than they do and who are suffering from poverty and powerlessness, yet who are demonized by a coordinated conservative campaign. This resentment separates its adherents, in fact, from people who work hard like they do and who experience the same economic insecurities that they do. It separates non-affluent conservatives from people who they otherwise would recognize as fellow victims of an unfair system controlled by the wealthy and the corporate elite.
This is by design. The modern conservative message is planned and distributed by the oligarchy. It is part of a strategy to keep the lower 90 percent divided and politically weak. The goal is to increase profits and investment dividends by reducing taxes, regulations, and corporate costs such as wages and benefits. They support their goals by minimizing the cohesion and influence of any groups in which ordinary humans defend and promote their interests, which include responsive government entities, non-government advocacy organizations, and unions. They also work to restrict voting. To achieve all these goals, the modern conservative message is broadcast and reinforced by a large collection of well-funded media outlets and think tanks and politicians. Their strategy has been carefully designed to support the continuation of extreme wealth and social inequality and to strengthen oligarchic political control. It has been remarkably effective.