You may have noticed there’s a lot of resentment in the country of late. Resentment is an ugly emotion: It fuels hatred and discontent that only deepens the divide in this country. While it’s closely related to jealousy, it’s not exactly the same; it’s even more negative. Sometimes, jealousy can be aspirational – it can lead you to strive toward excellence as you hope to obtain some version of what the other person has that you want. Resentment, though, is often less focused on a specific thing that another individual has. Instead, it’s anger directed at a whole group of people who have usurped what you think is properly yours.

Unfortunately, more and more politicians on all points of the ideological spectrum have not only exploited but also encouraged resentment in recent years. With liberal politicians, it’s often based on economic class. They decry the influence of wealthy individuals and large corporations alike, implying that all of them have done something underhanded to make their fortune, rather than earning it. They then fuel the belief that their success is somehow bad for the country as a whole, and that it helps keep others from being economically stable, never mind prosperous.

On the right, politicians often stoke resentment along the lines of religion, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. They decry the push toward equal rights as some sort of nefarious scheme to upend the social order and remake traditional institutions. They act as if recognizing nontraditional families as legitimate is somehow a threat to their own family, or to their own rights to raise their children as they wish. Rather than simply being content to live their own lives, they seem intent on imposing their vision on the rest of the world as well.

Taken to the extreme, resentment over either economics or demographics can undermine American democracy and lead to the establishment of an illiberal regime in its place. These resentments, while based in some legitimate concerns, come from a fundamental misunderstanding of both the national economy and human rights. It’s all too easy to see both areas like a budget – or, in even simpler terms, a pie: a limited resource that everyone is trying to get as much of as they possibly can. That’s not really how either of them work, though.

The national (or global) economy can keep growing for all of us. The enormous success of some individuals and corporations does not necessarily come at the expense of everyone else. If a company is responsible, then as they grow all of their employees will prosper as well. Their salaries and benefits ought to increase along with the company’s profits as they try to make sure their growth is sustainable long term, and that will provide a greater benefit to society as a whole. Many businesses have realized this over the years: That’s why similar businesses are often clustered together, and why small businesses are so supportive of one another. They all inherently realize that increasing prosperity for everyone helps them; somebody else’s success is not automatically a threat.

Similarly, ensuring that everyone has equal rights is a benefit to us all. Allowing others to enjoy the same rights as you shouldn’t be seen as a threat in any way; we’re a compassionate enough country that we can treat everybody humanely. When everyone is treated humanely, everyone wins. As marriage equality advocates frequently pointed out during that campaign, allowing same-sex couples marriage rights doesn’t hurt anyone else’s marriage – married couples manage that more than well enough on their own. We’re never going to be able to completely eliminate fear and narrow-mindedness toward various groups, but we can try to move in the right direction.

The biggest problem with both parties fueling resentment politics is that, while it may lead to short-term political gains for them, it doesn’t solve actual problems. In both economics and human rights, this country has real issues that need to be addressed, and simply casting blame on others doesn’t do that. That’s why, rather than continuing to embrace resentment politics, we ought to move towards more aspirational politics – when we all work together to improve the country as a whole for everyone, instead of just our group.

America is at its best when it aspires to greatness, whether that comes from the left or the right. That’s when we’re able to put aside our petty differences and actually get things done. Hopefully, as both a state and a country, we haven’t lost that spirit.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel


Comments are not available on this story.