the politics of ressentiment

March 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

The fatal flaw of the left,  and most irritating habit, is the frequent assumption that their adversaries are just not smart enough to understand their points.   “How can they be so uninformed!?!”  We have all heard it or said it.  Conservatives understand the facts exactly to the extent that they matter.  In fact, the more educated a self identified conservative is, the less likely that person is to accept objective fact incongruous to whatever is the current political doctrine.  This suggests a character type that is not only immune to debate as understood by the left, but that actively seeks to subvert the terms of the debate itself.  Characterizing that habit as confused or not clever misses the point.   Conservatives simply play game the way it is scored by their base.

Julian Sanchez wrote two pieces over the last 18 months that have gone a long way towards defining conservative thought for me.  In my earlier post, I described not being able to understand at all where right wing messaging comes from, and how their arguments seem intentionally and stubbornly constructed to frustrate the left and not to advance a cogent point of their own.   The debate on the right, then, is always politically convenient, never substantive.  Looking at that post again a day later, I can see how that isn’t entirely true.  Its  mostly because, while borrowing from these pieces by Mr Sanchez, I  was also butchering them.  This is the first one, from December 2009:


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 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.

This, I think, is at the very heart of why the conservative movement inverts their own position and assumes that is the goal of their opponents. They then advance arguments that appear almost unrelated to the topic but work well to spite an invented,  imaginary proposal.   The left can play at this too, but it happens only at the fringes.  For conservatives, this is as mainstream as apple pie.  It is a great style for talk radio but it’s a foreign language to anyone outside the right wing media bubble.


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