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Dec. 16 2009 - 3:32 pm | 2,508 views | 5 recommendations | 46 comments

The Politics of Ressentiment

Conor Friedersdorf pokes some holes in Matt Continetti’s desperate attempt to paint substantive criticism of Sarah Palin’s published arguments as some kind of mob persecution. He’s got a fine case on the specifics, but I think misses the mark when he dubs the modern right’s obsession with its own supposed victimization  an instance of the “politics of schadenfreude.”  If you’re going to import hoity-toity foreign terms into your political analysis, you may as well play fully to type and pick a French one, which happens to be more accurate in the instance anyway.  Schadenfreude is as ubiquitous in politics as in any other competitive game; you can bet Democrats in the ’20s were  laughing their asses off over Teapot Dome. The word he wants is ressentiment:

Ressentiment is a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, an assignation of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

Conservatism is a political philosophy; the farce currently performing under that marquee is an inferiority complex in political philosophy drag. Sure, there’s an element of “schadenfreude” in the sense of “we like what annoys our enemies.” But the pathology of the current conservative movement is more specific and  convoluted.  Palin irritates the left, but so would lots of vocal conservatives if they were equally prominent—and some of them are probably even competent to hold office. Palin gets to play sand in the clam precisely because she so obviously isn’t. She doesn’t just irritate liberals in some generic way: she evokes their contempt. Forget “Christian conservative”; she’s a Christ conservative, strung up on the media cross on behalf of all God’s right-wing children.

Think back to the 2004 RNC—which I happened to be up in New York  covering. After witnessing three days of inchoate, spittle-flecked rage from the people who had the run of all three branches of government, some wag (probably Jon Stewart) puzzled over the “anger of the enfranchised.” And it would be puzzling if the driving force here were a public policy agenda, rather than a set of cultural grievances. Jay Gatsby learned too late that wealth alone wouldn’t confer the status he had truly craved all along. What we saw in ‘04 was fury at the realization that ascendancy to political power had not (post-9/11 Lee Greenwood renaissance notwithstanding) brought parallel cultural power.  The secret shame of the conservative base is that they’ve internalized the enemy’s secular cosmopolitan value set and status hierarchy—hence this obsession with the idea that somewhere, someone who went to Harvard might be snickering at them.

The pretext for converting this status grievance into a political one is the line that the real issue is the myopic policy bred by all this condescension and arrogance—but the policy problems often feel distinctly secondary.  Check out the RNC’s new ad on health reform, taking up the Tea Party slogan “Listen to Me!”  There’s almost nothing on the substantive objections to the bill; it’s fundamentally about people’s sense of powerlessness in a debate that seems driven by wonks. To the extent that Obama enjoyed some initial cross-partisan appeal, I think it owed a lot to his recognition that most people care less about actual policy outcomes than they do about feeling that they’re being heard and respected.

Or consider the study Ryan Sager highlighted a while back, showing that many SUV owners don’t merely think their choice of vehicles is harmless or morally neutral, but positively virtuous. Apparently the “moralistic critique of their consumption choices readily inspired Hummer owners to adopt the role of the moral protagonist who defends American national ideals.” Note two things here.  First, this is classic ressentiment: It’s not just that SUVs are great in themselves because they somehow “embody” some set of ideals. They’re good just because they symbolize an inversion of the “anti-American” values of critics. Second, think what it reveals that people feel the need to construct these kinds of absurd rationalizations—to make their cars heroic rather than simply denying that they do much harm. It betrays an incredible sensitivity, not to excessive taxes or regulations on the vehicles, but to the feeling of being judged.

Since everyone’s favorite way to excuse indefensible political behavior is to point out that they staaaaaarted it, let me point out that the ’70s mantra that the “personal is political” and some of the the ’90s obsession with policing language and attitudes  probably exacerbated the blurring of lines between questions of public justice and matters of personal virtue. Hell, we can translate the the basic beef of the Tea Partiers into faddish 90s jargon easily enough: They’re reacting against a hegemonic discourse in the centers of power that constructs them simultaneously as a bearers of class privilege and as a bestial Other.  The elevation of figures like Palin represents an attempt to reappropriate an oppressive stereotype, akin to the way some hip-hop embraces a caricaturish racist vision of violent black masculinity. To be sure, most of what gets cast as “oppression” here is just the decline of privilege, but the perception is what matters for the social dynamic.

Ultimately, this is a doomed project: Even if conservatives retook power, they wouldn’t be able to provide a political solution to a psychological problem, assuming they’re not willing to go the Pol Pot route. At the same time, it signals a resignation to impotence on the cultural front where the real conflict lies.  It effectively says: We cede to the bogeyman cultural elites the power of stereotypical definition, so becoming the stereotype more fully and grotesquely is our only means of empowerment.

To see how the difference between ressentiment and simple schadenfreude matters, consider Palin one more time.  If the goal is just to antagonize liberals, making her the Republican standard-bearer seems tactically bizarre, since ideally you want someone who isn’t so repugnant to independents as to be unelectable. If the animating force is ressentiment,  the leader has to be a loser to really deserve the role. Which is to say, expect the craziness to get worse before it gets better.


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Sanchez,

    I have read you piece a couple of times and I have to say I am not entirely sure what it is you are trying to say. I think that you are saying that many conservatives support Sarah Palin out of shear petulance, simply to annoy liberals. I have to disagree, if I have indeed correctly understood you point. They support her because she is charismatic and truly believes everything she says and they believe. Most conservative politicians are cynical hypocrites who mouth conservative talking points but do not actually really believe them. Sarah Palin is a true believer and the conservative base of the Republican Party can tell and love her for it. That she does not actually understand what she is saying, that it is incoherent, or that it completely contradicts something she just said five minutes earlier does not diminish her full believe in it. For example, Sarah Palin, in her Washington Post Op-Ed piece wrote that “President Obama’s proposal calls for serious cuts in our own long-term carbon emissions. Meeting such targets would require Congress to pass its cap-and-tax plans, which will result in job losses and higher energy costs”.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/08/AR2009120803402.html

    However as Governor, Ms. Palin signed Administrative Order 238 which created a Climate Change Sub-Cabinet which was charged with, among other things, find…

    12. the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the operations of Alaska state government;

    13. the opportunities for Alaska to participate in carbon-trading markets, including the offering of carbon sequestration;

    http://gov.state.ak.us/admin-orders/238.html

    Now most conservative politicians would blush at such a flip-flop but not Ms. Palin. She believes completely and firmly in whatever it is she is saying at he moment. While it probably helps that she does not actually understand most of what she wrote either as Governor in September 2007 or as ex-Governor in November 2009 but she does really believe what she wrote, either individually or together or even neither.

    This is her true source of power.

  2. collapse expand

    RE:but I think misses the mark when he dubs the modern right’s obsession with its own supposed victimization an instance of the “politics of schadenfreude.”

    I don’t know what schadenfreude means, but I am sure obama could replace his middle name, hussein, with it…..

    p.s. it sound german, not french

  3. collapse expand

    Nice line on the Republican convention … “inchoate, spittle-flecked rage…”

  4. collapse expand

    That was excellent, Julian. You’ve said what I’ve been trying to piece together for months now. Oh the joys of expanding one’s vocabulary….

  5. collapse expand

    Where is your evidence? Because as far as I can tell, this is just a bunch of made-up psychobabble. How do you know this is what all conservatives are thinking? Did you interview a representative sample and this is what they told you? You would have had to interview hundreds of people to arrive at this conclusion. And seriously, inferiority complex? We really don’t want to be like you, Julian. And you didn’t go to Harvard either.

  6. collapse expand

    Hi Julian, I had occasion to poke around this site today and came across your splendid article. I think this analysis is astute, and I pretty much agree in every particular, with different emphasis. Now that you have explained your ressentiment thesis, I believe there are three causes for it, all of which you address: 1) conservatives seek justice, and the “inferiority complex” is based on a feeling of injustice, 2) a clash of cultures, which I have spoken about in my own articles, and 3) a feeling of frustration, as in, for example, the lack of “substantive objections” to the current healthcare bill, nobody at present knows what is in it, so it is impossible to frame specific arguments against it with any coherence. I also agree with you that these attitudes are not conservative, in fact, they are radical. It may be that treatment of Palin embodies the injustice that conservatives feel, which might account for much of their support of her. In any case, thanks for a good read.

    George Copeland
    National RNC Examiner
    http://www.copelandweb.com

  7. collapse expand

    Thought provoking post,

    I wonder though if something more sinister, less psychologically exculpatory is not also occurring. While less, let’s say…dialectically sophisticated, could it not also be a brand of good ol’ American resentment at the “uppityness” (with all of the social and racial connotations that implies) of liberals. I suggest this because I think there is a sense among Republicans, that they have some “implied right” to govern as their value systems and prerogatives are ostensibly co-eval with those of the “Founding Fathers.” Thus, to be out of power politically is indeed one thing: an unfortunate spirit of the times, which soon passes. But as you have suggested, to be culturally marginalized and therefore to question that moral equivalency with the founders has resulted in a reaction-formation not based on inferiority but just indignation and hate. Given the political discourse on the right, which constantly seeks to reestablish ties ideologically with the philosophical and political commitments of Jefferson and Washington (notably not Adams or Hamilton), and deviations from that are seen as wholly anti-American, they wish to speak from a position of entitlement rather than inferiority. For the religious right, that entitlement is also re-affirmed by a “gospel of wealth” theology. The Calvinist framework that claims the “visible signs” of election in the next world are illustrated by material success in this world, feeds a kind of vitriolic exasperation in not being elected to political office.

    I also sense that your understanding of ressentiment is primarily informed by Nietzsche. I think Kierkegaard’s position may also be of use. He understands that term (what he calls misundelse) as a process that is primarily characterized by a levelling, a hindering or forestalling of a passionate age or even individuals. He suggests in his work, The Present Age, that for it to really begin a “phantom must be brought into existence,” that is, the phantom of the public. This public is filled with unreal individuals who nevertheless stick together and present a kind of unassailable abstraction, which can be used as a leverage against the passionate ideas of change. It is not unlike Nixon’s “silent majority” except that this abstraction need not be silent, but just imbued with a voice that is never their own. Perhaps this gets far afield from your original point about Fmr. Gov. Palin, but I would suggest the phantom public haunts a great deal of our current political landscape.

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    About Me

    In real life, Julian Sanchez is a journalist turned policy analyst who focuses on the intersection of technology and privacy.

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    Contributor Since: November 2009