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Dec. 21 2009 - 5:07 pm | 313 views | 4 recommendations | 25 comments

Ressentiment Redux

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    I agree that some of the criticisms of Obama and the left miss the target and seem to be motivated by the idea that there’s something foreign and Un-American about Obama and those who surround him — however, having been a part of Yippie movement in the late sixties and early seventies, I see them as immature, American “socialists” who never grew beyond the slogans. But, really, a lot of the satirical stuff is aimed at the pretentiousness and undeserved air of greatest and intellectuality that surrounds it all — it is kind of funny. Some populist, misdirected anger, perhaps, but mostly a deserved bringing-down.

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    RE:That is, I don’t think it’s ressentiment that causes people to adopt conservative values or policy positions.

    What causes these millionaires senators and president to hate so much? There is a lot of hate in ultra left liberal america

    This reid guy is a criminal…is there any law they respect?

  3. collapse expand

    What are these two commenters talking about? Yippees? Millionaires? Criminals? If it weren’t par for the internet, I’d say it verges on proving your point a tiny bit, Julian.

    Anyway, it’s interesting to me how right-wing resentment compares and contrasts with lefty PC. Both are reactions to feeling judged, but PC comes from an actual deep analysis of effed up shite embedded in culture. While there is _of_course_arrogance and classism and regionalism to call lefties on, whenever I start to compare the thrust of the two movements directly, I realize it’s like saying… oh, I don’t know… that the experience of divorcing an abusive husband is the same as that of divorcing a plain jerky one.

    And my favorite bit of All-American cognitive dissonance comes from evangelicals who decry cultural elitists while proclaiming their culture gives them a Platinum Club membership to freakin’ heaven for freakin’ ever.

    • collapse expand

      PC has two elements to it. One is “evangelical niceness”. A wish that language not be used to collectively denigrate. The other is opinion bigotry, where waving one’s linguistic forms and paraded attitudes establishes oneself as a member of a moral and cognitive elite. So, for example, it is just fine to collectively denigrate conservatives (or, outside the US, Americans). The former is, of course, used to justify the latter.
      But if one is the target of the latter, it generates resentment. If much of mainstream media and film/tv/theatre/literary/artistic culture is pervaded by this, this creates cultural resentment.
      Which very easily becomes the politics of ressentiment that Julian has analysed so perceptively and amusingly. Which makes, as he points out, the mistake of buying into the framing instead of laughing at it.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Wiseguise,

    You didn’t understand what I wrote? Surely it was clear enough — as Yippie/yippee is sufficient unto itself, yahoo, in it’s zen incarnation, is never really sufficient, although whoopi is as whoopi does, and the fall-back position being missionary, no movement is perfectly formed (think callipygian) — therefore,to be perfectly clear, if not perfectly in-formed, what I meant was something other than your first impression. However, that’s understandable.

  5. collapse expand

    I’ve enjoyed your posts on this topic. One thing I keep coming back to is how much of this has to do with not personal identity but literary identity. The wounded warrior doesn’t have to be me for me to identify with her, she could be The Virginian or Josey Wales.

  6. collapse expand

    @mfarmer:

    While you are right that some of the barbs aimed at Obama are more about satire than anything else, I think you are missing the main point of these past two blog postings. Namely, that the populist movement around Palin is not about policy or ideology, but about tribal identity.

    Nearly every attack on the Democratic leadership, from the satirical to the vulgar, has been done in a way to paint them as being different, if not completely alien (like the birther “movement”). While also trying to put anything the Democrats could conceivably say about anything as being insulting to the populist tribe.

    The larger point being that this movement is generating alot of smoke and light but very little heat. It is tossing anything resembling real political thought to the curb. What is left is alot of “ressentment” as a substitute for community, and simplistic sloganeering as a substitute for ideology. This may be a problem for the country if some of these candidates do actually get elected to anything important.

    Or it could be that there is someone who actually knows how to run the government hiding behind that Palin mask. I guess that’s the optimistic take.

    • collapse expand

      I don’t really the satire as aimed at Obama and co. being “different” — this seems to be something focused on to imply subtle racism. I see the satire aimed at pretentiousness. Like the specch about slowing the rising tides and healing the planet — that was some funny stuff in light of Obama’s achievement — the real deal is that this administration, advertised as new Whiz Kids, is incompetent and amatuerish, but they think a lot of themselves.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    One other thought that occurred to me while reading these two posts is the place these new media forms are taking in focusing our attention on government. People used to pay more attention to local government as it was where the “rubber meets the road” and it is the level they have the most opportunity to enact change.

    But now these new media types are allowing you to get that same feeling of involvement at the national level. This is good in some respects, as it can allow individuals a leverage that has never existed before, but I think it is also bad because no one seems to be paying attention to what goes on in City Hall. Unless the City is huge, like New York or LA or something.

  8. collapse expand

    As an arrogant leftie, there needs to be some objective measure of worthiness and I’m not inclined to allow the rabble to imagine themselves important enough for their opinions to be considered.

    Just because you really believe something does not make it so…and one is not entitled to opinions or beliefs (that anyone has to allow for) once they’ve been proven wrong (see the last 8 years of Republican economics).

    Equal treatment before the Law and all, but there are distinct differences in the demographics between the two parties and the particulars are not all without subjective value.

    Red States are fatter and more unhealthy, more illiterate, have more welfare recipients, more racism & bigotry, more poor people, lower life expectancy & higher death rates (terrible grammar and I apologize, but you get my point). In Republican states things are simply worse (poorer, fatter, stupider) for the average citizen…

    To hear a gun-toting, uneducated conservative, living in a rural (formerly confederate) state, overweight/obese, waiting for (eager for) Armageddon, rail against being given healthcare even when it will cost us all less, or complaining about welfare recipients and their lack of personal responsibility when their state’s economy is largely supported by government subsidies is not just a cliche…it hurts because there’s more than a ring of truth to it.

    We don’t want those types of people making decisions for anyone besides themselves and they are certainly not to have legislation catered to their worldview.

    EVERYONE is NOT welcome at the table (both sides included) but Republicans far & away have the larger share of the frightened, the willfully ignorant, and the stupid.

    • collapse expand

      Okay, I figured out the commnent deal here.

      Russ is at least honest about what he thinks. This seems to be an extreme version of what many people think about the south, the Tea Party advocates and the opposition to progressivism. The fact is that leftists like Russ seem to think everyone on the right is “different”, especially if they are from the south or midwest. There is a reductionist view that there’s this group of ignorant, racist slobs who oppose the left agenda and they are almost subhuman, at least less-than the enlightened left. It’s usually more subtle than this, but I’ve witnessed this mindset enough to know that it’s fairly widespread — sort of like Mahr’s “stupid” comment. It’s a pretentious and undeserved air of superiority that’s both funny and insulting to average people who don’t fit the description promoted by the left, but, nonetheless are opposed to the left and statism in general.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        By way of my ’street cred’ regarding southern/midwestern sociopathy, my family is from Little Rock (circa 1930s), I’ve lived in Oklahoma City OK, Pascagoula & Biloxi, MS, Richmond, VA, & New Orleans, LA.

        My numbers above are not fabrications, those states really are worse off in measurable, objective ways, and whether you wish to defend/support the minority of reasonable, intelligent denizens of those areas is fine, but they are NOT a Majority, their state governments serve thier constituents poorly because of their conservative ideology, and it has ALWAYS been that way, since the Confederacy (think on EVERY major social issue for the last 100 years and where do you find the most ardent detractors of progress (suffrage, miscegenation, civil rights, evolution, reproductive rights & stem cell science, climate change, school integration, gay rights, immigration)…?

        I aver it is ALWAYS ‘those’ people and until we stop allowing them to think they have something positive to contribute, and we start universally mocking them, they’ll have no incentive to stop being stupid…

        We have allowed a progressive penchant for tolerance & inclusion to be used to undermine progress & inclusion. We do not have to tolerate the intolerant, nor include the non-inclusive.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  9. collapse expand

    Why are some of the comments I receive by email not listed here? I just received one about ignorant southern rednecks which is not listed here. I was going to say something profound, but if that comment has been removed, my response will look out of place.

  10. collapse expand

    Things really started to get bad in the 60’s when each new film featured a graphic sex scene. A person had to steel oneself to find a some way to remain emotionally neutral to continue to watch the narrative. Those uncomfortable moments just had to be stored somewhere. Then this began to happen with music. It is sad to think that the only thing the creative people in entertainment business can offer us is violence and porn and then think it is somehow revolutionary! It’s the cheep trick of the uninspired and uneducated.

  11. collapse expand

    Not five minutes ago I had an argument with someone on this very subject. He was telling me that, in the GOP, certain political philosophies should be *forbidden*. My counterpoint was that if you don’t win elections you have no power, so ideology matters not a whit, winning does. Your ressentiment thesis addresses ideology (more accurately the lack thereof) and so may be interesting from a theoretical or philosophical perspective, but I don’t think it has as much relevance for influencing or explaining political tactics on the ground, as you attempt to do here. Actual political tactics are much more governed by analytical analyses, such as precinct turnout and public opinion polls, and are not much directly concerned with philosophical motivation.

    As with your original ressentiment article, your insight that these motivations among conservatives is profoundly *unconservative* is a central insight.

  12. collapse expand

    “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.”

    I think you are mistaken here in choosing one reading of these things, when in many cases -both- the literal and subliminal/smybolic reading are valuable.

    Take one of the most prominent of the Tea Party rallying cries: the Birther accusations that Obama is a sekrit Kenyin’ muslim. Or that his birth certificates are faked. Is that their real concern? Are we looking at a mass movement that is deeply concerned about the birth records and citizenship status of the President? Maybe. But it seems a bit far fetched to attribute these concerns to the millions of Birther/Tea Tantrum types. Wouldn’t these people have been making noises about McCain’s birth off of US soil??

    The subliminal reading of these noises does a lot more explanatory work: the Birther accusations are a thinly veiled version of ‘Go Back to Africa’.
    Once one sees that interpretation of the phenomenon, it doesn’t go away. Many have pointed out the similarity of these accusations to the John Birch Society claims that Ike Eisenhower was a Kremlin plant (BTW, how hilarious is that?). I am inclined to agree. These expressions are symptomatic of much deeper paranoias and neuroses that exist in the mind of the polity; the deep craziness that simmers under the surface of the human psyche, and is now bleeding through after the last decade of political upheavals perforated our paper thin rationality .

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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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