I really do want to reserve this space for proper rants, but since the post on ressentiment from last week has prompted a broader reaction than I anticipated, I’m going to violate my general rule and let a more serious—and therefore somewhat more boring—argument slip in. I promise not to let it happen too often.
First, to clarify the original thought a little. When I say that the modern populist right is animated by ressentiment, I’m not claiming it’s composed of people who are somehow jealous of, I don’t know, Nancy Pelosi or New York Times reporters, and want to be just like them, which would be silly. The dynamic I’m imagining looks very different—I’ll sketch it a little further on. More importantly, I don’t mean this as some kind of Mannheimian “unmasking” where I diagnose the subconscious psychological reasons people hold some disfavored set of political views, thereby supposedly robbing them of their force. (“You only advance this argument because it’s in your economic interest/you hate America/mommy didn’t breast feed you/whatever.”) To the extent we’re talking about the economic issues currently center stage, I’m in substantial agreement with plenty of the explicit political principles of the movement I’m describing. That is, I don’t think it’s ressentiment that causes people to adopt conservative values or policy positions. This is not the What’s the Matter With Kansas argument; it’s about how people organize in defense of their political values, not their reasons for holding them. If anything, my worry is that the motivating impulse is not interestingly related to conservative values.
What do I mean? Well, it’s a core conservative insight that communities—and certainly political communities—are defined as much or more by implicit practices and ways of life as by explicit points of doctrine. The most basic level of any political group’s ideology is always necessarily outside the ideology, because in the wild the explicit principles need to be supplemented by implicit rules of action—practices as opposed to propositions—that tell you how to apply, weigh, modify, and for that matter just identify the important articulated principles that define the movement. Logic geeks may think of Lewis Carroll’s dialogue “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” here; philosophy geeks may insert their favorite Alasdair McIntyre quotation. There’s conservative ideology, and there’s the distinct question of how it’s acted out or advanced by a particular group of human beings in a particular time and context.
The trick in a pluralistic democracy is that you also need embedded background rules and practices that make the national-level political institutions run. If it really is a pluralistic and free society, these won’t be part of some kind of thick monoculture, but embedded in the diverse lifeworlds of the people and groups in the polity. Rawls would have called these “comprehensive conceptions of the good,” but that connotes something a bit too abstract and theoretical—the conceptions are embedded in ways of life, not just lists of explicit tenets or propositions. The clever alchemy of liberal democracy is to transform this potential source of conflict into an advantage through public deliberation, which (when it’s functioning) gives us collectively a broader pool of perspectives and truths and insights to draw on. But in a very practical way, especially in our electoral system, broad political movements also need to create shared identities that bind together large coalitions and mobilize them to action. The binding element can be something perfectly pragmatic: “We are the small-businessmen who will be put upon by this tax hike.” This works, albeit highly imperfectly, to the extent that the mechanism that pulls people into political engagement has as its upshot a motivation to persuade other people to agree with you about the best policy. If I favor school vouchers, I might emphasize to religious folks that they will make it easier to get their children a religious education, even if I don’t myself consider this much of a benefit, because the point is agreement, not an articulation of my full cultural worldview.
One aspect of the problem with our current politics, I want to claim, is that the political identity of the populist right is too thick. We long ago grew accustomed to this sloppy use of “community,” where we’ll talk about the “medical community” or the “gay community”—even though this is clearly a kind of nonsense above the level of a smallish town. But national-level political communities really are communities now, in a fairly robust sense. Between dedicated cable and radio channels and the Internet, you really can live in them in a pretty literal and immersive way. But simultaneously—and maybe this sounds a bit paradoxical—political communities are therefore also more culturally autonomous. That is, they need no longer refer to something outside politics. When I enter politics as a small businessman or a Catholic or a philosophical conservative, I’m bringing information from outside the political process into it. What’s really pernicious about a politics of ressentiment is that it cuts that tether—it enables a political identity that’s generated and defined by political conflict itself. When Joe Trippi talks about the implosion of the Dean campaign, he says that one problem was that the internal community between supporter that any political movement needs became an end in itself, a way of satisfying social needs exogenous to politics, rather than a means to an electoral goal. Bringing other people onboard was less important than enjoying internal fellowship. The issue in each case was the way a particular group functioned, not any deep connection to the set of political ideals the group was nominally working to advance.
So that’s the general worry—a populist right animated by ressentiment isn’t going to do a good job of injecting conservative ideas into deliberation in a useful way. This is not, just to be clear, some kind of white-gloved complaint about “tone,” because really, fuck tone. The ascendancy of angry bluster isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom. The problem is what the anger obscures. Maybe sex is a good analogy here: If you’re not turned on or emotionally engaged, it can look kind of ridiculous. Charging up the rhetoric prevents the kind of emotional distancing that would make the cultural grievances seem absurd, at least as politicial issues. I think progressives have to own their share of this, by the way: Part of the problem is that politics is no longer seen as a narrow tool for addressing some well-defined set of problems, but a kind of all-purpose machine for the satisfaction of human desires. Eating arugula falls under “interstate commerce” right?
As for the specific claim that the populist right is currently animated by ressentiment, I don’t think this is a matter of excavating hidden drives from the subconscious; I’m talking about what’s right out in the open. In fact, I want to suggest we need to read a lot of our current political rhetoric more literally and less symbolically. When Fox anchors make fun of Barack Obama’s choice of fancy dijon mustards, or the way he pronounces “Pakistan,” or say he’s “apologizing for America,” we naturally read these as coded claims about something else—as implying effeminacy and insufficient toughness for a commander-in-chief, or a class divide that shows he’s out of touch the concerns of ordinary workers, or an inability to project strength in foreign affairs. I want to suggest that we take them absolutely literally: This guy eats different mustard than you do, pronounces words differently than you do, and doesn’t share your affection for national symbols. The coded meaning is actually a red herring—it’s just there to obscure the fact that the surface message is the one that matters.
We don’t need to do some kind of probing psychoanalysis, because this stuff isn’t subtext; it’s text. Remember Palin’s infamous “death panels” post? It wasn’t just a claim that the government would deny care; the fear was that this was Obama’s “death panels” getting to decide how worthy you are. Liberals treated it as a generic argument about “rationing,” but by its own terms it was an argument about being judged. Conservatives’ favorite photo of Obama has him with his nose in the air looking down on the hoi polloi, testifying to his purported arrogance. Then the outrage over a strained reading of an Obama remark about “putting lipstick on a pig”: He’s calling Sarah (and therefore you!) a pig! The message is pretty insistent: They think they’re better than you. It’s not, again, that I’m asking why people hold certain policy views and concluding that it’s really about this kind of cultural resentment. I’m asking why the political coalition organized around this set of views is putting so much emphasis on this frame, and whether it isn’t ultimately a bad idea to.
Maybe because I write a lot about technology and media, I’m biased toward an account of where this is coming from that stresses those changes. When people want to talk about how television changed politics, they invariably cite the Kennedy/Nixon debate, where folks who heard it on the radio thought Nixon won, but those who watched it favored Kennedy. The effect of a media form, however, may depend significantly on the degree of media saturation: We don’t just see the official debate and a few news clips in the months before the election. We see national political figures constantly—and maybe we’re even Facebook friends or Twitter followers. And when they appear for those big-ticket events, we’re often networked with fellow-travelers in realtime dissecting every gesture and expression. It seems to be offline now, but recall Jon Chait’s New Republic piece about hating George Bush? That smirk! That swagger! The way he mangles English! The visible and audible signifiers of group membership loom much larger. At the same time, demographic clustering is probably increasing the correlation between political ideology and these other cultural markers.
It’s a bit of a truism that new transit technologies always have their greatest transformative effect on those who were previously at the periphery. If you sat in on the media and tech forums at the last CPAC, this was a source of great excitement: Liberal elites used to hold all the levers of media power, and the great boon of the Internet for the right is that they now have a way of bypassing Hollywood and New York. So no big surprise that a lot of what’s initially released will be tinged with previously suppressed resentment about not having that media power, about being immersed in an alien-seeming media stream where the image of who’s glamorous or cool or important or serious doesn’t match your friends, and the admissible moves in the public conversation don’t sound like your conversations. People have read racial undertones into the rallying cry “I want my country back!” and its cognates—probably because this is a strange way to present opposition to a policy agenda, however misguided you might find it. The instinct is right, but I think the conclusion is wrong: Race—and communism, as Tim Curry would remind us—is another red herring. What we’re seeing is the natural sentiment of people who think of themselves as quintessentially American looking at an American popular and public culture that presents them as marginal. Palin or Joe the Plumber reintroduce to politics the promise of reality television: You too can be a celebrity—if not personally, at least by proxy!
Quite apart from its poisonous effect on deliberative politics, it’s actually striking how un-conservative this is. There’s a potential strategic benefit for any political movement in tapping these sorts of thicker grounds of solidarity, but the way it elevates and expands the scope of political identity—and therefore of politics—seems like it ought to be anathema to conservative principles. All the spheres of life government must not invade, they’re voluntarily steeping in politics. It’s just another way of living in Washington’ s shadow.