Personally, I saw this when I first arrived at Yale. I recall being stunned at how status anxiety pervaded elite college campuses. Internally, I thought, “You’ve already made it, what are you so stressed out about?” Hoffer, though, would say these students believed they had almost made it. That is why they were so aggravated. The closer they got to realizing their ambitions, the more frustrated they became about not already achieving them.
Hoffer’s conceptions of frustration highlight how if your conditions improve, but not as much or as quickly as you’d like, you will be vulnerable to recruitment by mass movements that promise to make your dreams come true.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “When inequality is the general law of society, the most blatant inequalities escape notice. When everything is virtually on a level, the slightest variations cause distress. That is why the desire for equality becomes more insatiable as equality extends to all.” For Hoffer, this insatiability cultivates frustration—a nebulous, simmering emotional state that can be harnessed by any ideology.
He describes what has now become known as the “Tocqueville effect”: A revolution is most likely to occur after an improvement in social conditions. As circumstances improve, people raise their expectations. Societal reforms raise reference points to a level that is usually not matched, eliciting rage and frustration.