The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Five things I learned about envy in politics

Image: Princeton University Press
Placeholder while article actions load

Why do some people seem to vote against their economic interests? Why do politicians enact policies that seem contrary to the interests of the people who vote for them? Why do people engage in protest when they could reap the benefits of others’ protest without having to get involved? These are questions that have puzzled political scientists since the discipline began.

Gwyneth McClendon tackles these questions in her new book, “Envy in Politics.” In a book remarkably well grounded in a broad range of literature, including behavioral economics, political theory, ethnic politics and anthropology, McClendon argues that political scientists have largely ignored what psychologists have long understood: that “people care about maintaining and improving their social status within groups.” In other words, envy — “a feeling of hostility toward the greater success of others” — matters. Other status motivations, including spite (“a wish for those with less to continue to have less, or to become even worse off relatively speaking) and the desire for admiration are also examined throughout the text.

“Envy in Politics” is a short, sharply argued case for taking individual level status motivations into account in political science research. Using case studies and field experiments from South Africa and the United States, McClendon presents an agenda-setting series of essays that, taken together, make the case for taking envy seriously. Here are five things I learned from her work:

1. Within-group status matters.

Social scientists pay a lot of attention to the ways that groups compete with one another. Whether we’re talking about organizations, lobbyists and corporations jostling for attention to get their favored policies enacted or ethnic groups competing to control national politics and therefore the distribution of resources to their group, we are very good at examining group behavior. But as McClendon points out, we haven’t spent as much time looking at how individuals see themselves in relationship to other members of their group. And, as she shows, this is a huge oversight, because it can help to explain why people vote the way they do, support particular policies that may seem to be bad for them, and why they join in politics in the first place.

2. People will oppose policies that benefit themselves and their community if they think it will lower their within-group status. 

McClendon uses survey data from South Africa and the United States to show that status motivations change the way that people think about redistributive economic policies. This is even true within ethnic groups, including marginalized ethnic groups like African Americans. As McClendon notes:

The worse off people are than their coethnic neighbors, the more supportive they are of greater redistribution (regardless of how personally costly this support is); the better off people are than their coethnic neighbors, the less supportive they are of redistribution.

In other words, even when a policy might make someone materially better off (by, say, improving their housing conditions), they are likely to oppose it if the government doing so for everyone in their community would harm their relative status position.

3. Policymakers know that their voters care about within-group status. 

McClendon also looks to the problem of government underspending to explain how status motivations affect political behavior. Government underspending occurs when governments don’t spend money they have that has already been allocated to implement specific policies. Using experimental data from South Africa and qualitative evidence, McClendon shows that government underspending does not simply occur because of corruption or incompetence; rather, it is a rational response to the knowledge that envy and spite can undermine policies implemented with the best of intentions, especially if those policies will have uneven benefits across the population. McClendon finds strong evidence to support this hypothesis; underspending in South African municipalities was much more significant in places that had the highest levels of income inequality among black South Africans.

4. Status motivations help to explain the collective action dilemma. 

Why people participate in contentious politics (like protests) when doing so is costly (in terms of time, lost wages, and/or the potential of being arrested) has long puzzled social scientists. After all, if others are willing to protest, any individual can reap the benefits of that protest should it lead to policy changes, all without ever having joined in and paid those costs of doing so. Yet people still chose to participate in contentious politics. McClendon suggests that status motivations may help to explain this problem, as well. To study this phenomenon, McClendon conducted an experiment in the United States in which members of an organization’s listserv received one of three different emails encouraging them to attend a protest. Some were just asked to come, others were asked to come and told that because participation in protest is admirable, their names would be listed in the organization’s next newsletter. A third group was told that participation in protest is admirable and invited participants to post photos to Facebook to be “liked” by others.

People who received the emails promising different forms of admiration showed up. Those offered the chance to have their names listed in the newsletter did so at a rate 76 percent higher than those who received just an informational invitation. Follow-up surveys suggest that the desire to be admired was indeed a major motivation for those who attended the protest.

5. Status motivations matter for how we think about policies. 

All of these findings have major implications for policymakers, and, as McClendon notes, those implications are not always positive ones. Who wants to design policies around the fact that people are selfish, envious and sometimes mean to others? Yet, as she notes, this is the way the world is, and if we want policies to succeed, we have to take these realities into account.

McClendon does not provide answers to all of these dilemmas, and she is explicit that her goal for “Envy in Politics” is to jump-start research in that area.  Her case and contribution cannot be ignored. “Envy” is a brilliant, thought-provoking book that will be studied and referenced for years to come.