Do Americans Resent the Rich?

Recently on Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough trotted out one his preferred observations. “Americans don’t resent the rich,” he said. “We want to be rich.” He noted that voters had a high regard for the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, who managed to convey a sense of concern for the general good.

I suppose Scarborough is right; we do not resent the rich per se. But we resent a lot of qualities that are associated with the rich. We don’t like snobbery, for example. We don’t like a sense of superiority. Or a sense of entitlement. We don’t like people bucking the line, or favoritism. We don’t like shallowness, and we don’t like self-absorption. In general, we believe that anyone who inherits wealth doesn’t know what life is really like, and that most people who have accumulated vast wealth forgot mostly all of whatever they once knew as fast as they could. We do resent people who can spend money without a second thought; and more, we envy those who can pamper themselves; and most of all, we have contempt for those who waste it. We acknowledge that money can’t buy happiness, but we do believe that having more money would buy us more happiness, and that the rich don’t know what real unhappiness is, because at the bottom, no matter how bad things are, having money gives them options that a lack of money forecloses. We don’t mind being taken advantage of by the rich on any particular deal, for we expect that everyone has his thumb on the scale, and believe that capitalism is a system where goods and services are exchanged in a way that mostly keeps a lid on the gouging; what we resent is lying, dishonesty, theft, and being forced to swallow a bad deal and told we ought to like it. We don’t really like that the exploit workers or rape the planet, but not many of us are willing to do much about it, as long as prices remain cheap on our end.

Some rich we like quite a bit–lotto winners, entertainers, criminals of a certain style, and the unlikely rich, like whoever owns Shamwow. We feel we could be these people. We have a certain tolerance for the discreet rich–the ones who live behind drawn shades in the big house on the hill, or behind the granite facades of the austere apartment buildings on Sutton Place, and who just go about their business without throwing their wealth in our faces. We actually like a very few of these discrete rich, people whom you hear about from time to time who work as librarians or janitors and who save and invest every penny they ever made, and whom you never hear of until they die and bequeath millions to some worthy charity. We like those rich a lot.

I do not think Scarborough is right when he says that we all want to be rich. All of us have a fantasy in which we are rich, and it is not unpleasant. Richness is a condition that we would accept, preferring it to most other conditions. In reality, what most of us want is more. According to a survey I saw a few months ago, most Americans believe they would have their dreams fulfilled with an income of about $150,000 a year.

That is the American Dream, isn’t it? It’s not to be as rich as Mitt Romney. It’s to have a house, a car or two, food on the table, some money for vacations, enough savings for the kids, health care as needed, and enough money for a decent retirement. For what it’s worth, the distance we are from that dream on any given day is equivalent to the amount we resent the rich.

[Cross-posted at /JamieMalanowski.com]

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.