Earlier this week, Julian Sanchez penned a piece titled “The Politics of Ressentiment” to explain the Sarah Palin and Tea Party phenomena. It challenges Conor Friedersdorf‘s notion that Palin’s “exaggerated victimhood” as part of a phenomenon he himself dubbed “the politics of schadenfreude — the strategy of deliberately drawing political support from the perception that you’re being treated unfairly.” As you might guess, Sanchez says, “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.
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 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.
Alex Massie and Will Wilsonson heartily endorse this analysis. Yet, while I have much more in common with the three of them than I do with Palin and the Tea Partiers, I think this too clever by more than half.
Palin’s supporters don’t think she’s a loser, they think she’s a salt of the earth Real American who fought her way to the top, took on the vested interests, and won. This passage from her acceptance speech at the convention is her image in their eyes:
My Mom and Dad both worked at the elementary school in our small town. And among the many things I owe them is one simple lesson: that this is America, and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity. My parents are here tonight, and I am so proud to be the daughter of Chuck and Sally Heath.
Long ago, a young farmer and habber-dasher from Missouri followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency. A writer observed: “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.” I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman.
I grew up with those people. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America … who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.
I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids’ public education better. When I ran for city council, I didn’t need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too. Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown.
And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a “community organizer,” except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening. We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.
As for my running mate, you can be certain that wherever he goes, and whoever is listening, John McCain is the same man. I’m not a member of the permanent political establishment. And I’ve learned quickly, these past few days, that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.
But here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion – I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people.
Now, there’s a good does of hostility in that last part. But it’s out of resentment, not ressentiment. Palin’s supporters don’t secretly wish they could be like the Washington elites, much less feel inferior to them. Most genuinely feel that people like Sarah Palin, whose kid went off to join the Army and fight in Iraq, are Real America while the liberal elites who protest the war are worthy of contempt.
And the Tea Party types don’t feel inferior to the policy wonks. They feel they’re part of a Silent Majority that is being asked to give up The Best Health Care in The World, By God so that Obama and his ACORN friends can implement their Socialist schemes.
There’s some truth, one imagines, to the ressentiment charge. It’s quite plausible these people have some envy and sense of inferiority toward people who went off and got Ivy League diplomas and moved into positions of power and authority over them while they themselves have had little success. And David Frum is surely right that the constant complaining from conservatives (including multi-millionaire talk show hosts with fancy degrees) about “elites” dominating the “culture” is borne out of some sense of inferiority, or at least powerlessness.
But Julian seems to have set off a wave of ressentiment creep, where everything conservatives do is explained in that frame.
Erik Kain blames it for the “war on Christmas” trope, wherein American Christians are offended at attempts to downplay the role of Christ in our holiday celebrations.
[N]aturally, because there are some bad apples on the secular side, it becomes very easy for culture warriors on the right to demonstrate and justify this cultural victimization. Bill O’Reilly can say “Why do they hate baby Jesus?” without batting an eye and people eat it up because there is this sense that this one definition of America is being subverted and marginalized whether or not that is actually the case. The important thing is that people perceive this to be this way, and it fits in with the wider political/cultural narrative that conservatives have adopted.
But this isn’t ressentiment. Christians aren’t opposed to Kwanzaa and Ramadan being elevated to prominence while the religious aspects of Christmas are played down because they secretly envy made-up African heritage festivals or because they subconsciously think Islam is really the superior religion. Rather, they and everybody they know believes in Jesus and are outraged that the culture is being radically changed before their eyes and for reasons they can’t understand. Most Americans had never heard of Kwanzaa and Ramadan twenty years ago but now they have to be given equal billing in the public square. And note that there’s hardly any fuss about the odes to Hanukkah, which has been part of our holiday culture so long that it’s just part of our shared heritage.
At the core of the argument, really, is the idea that the people who are advocating change are doing so with wonkish analysis and pie charts whereas those fighting to preserve the status quo are simply bitter reactionaries. Not only is that oversold — there’s plenty of invective coming from the change advocates — but it’s a natural component of the human condition. People often don’t have strong intellectual arguments in support of keeping things the way they’ve always known them. They just have an instinctive sense that it’s the way things ought to be.