January 15th, 2012
09:02 AM ET

Letters to the President #1091: 'The envy vote'

Reporter's Note: I write to the president every day. I do not write to the vice president. Hey, I’m dedicated, but not crazy.

Dear Mr. President,

Did you see that study last week about how “relative wealth” has emerged as the biggest bone of contention between American citizens these days? I don’t mean as in “boy, my relatives sure have a lot of money and that pisses me off.” No, I mean that people who are poor or middle class seem to be developing an usually strong dislike for people who are rich.

I keep thinking back to some of the speeches you’ve made lately about income disparity and I wonder how much of this is chicken, and how much is egg. In other words, did you simply voice a frustration that was already there, or have you…as Republicans accuse… whipped up class resentment as a way of securing votes?

I don’t have an answer of course, but I’ve been thinking it over. I know that John Edwards loved to talk up the “two Americas” idea when he was campaigning a few years back, and when the economy was still pretty solid, he never seemed to get much traction with that.

But these are different days, aren’t they?

I understand how people who have lost jobs, are in danger of losing houses, and who have lost hope might like the idea of saying the problem is that rich folks are ripping them off. I also have no doubt that there are rich people who take from the poor, just as surely as there are muggers who take from anyone who happens by.

Still, I wonder where we are headed as a nation with all this? Resentment, envy, and jealousy are easy to rile up, and hard to calm down in my experience. And once ignited, they can also lead to wildly unpredictable outcomes…especially in a society where so many of us feel afraid for our futures.