Inside Story

Democracy’s dark shadow

Resentment can be a potent — and not always destructive — motivator in political life

James Walter Books 9 August 2023 3151 words

Legitimate feelings of injustice? An election rally in support of Donald Trump in Sandown, New Hampshire, in October 2016. Mary Schwalm/AFP via Getty Images

A collective sigh of relief came in May 2022 when Australians elected a federal government that promised to tackle precipitously declining public trust in politicians and political institutions. As a consequence of governance failures under previous administrations, obloquy had descended not only on ministers and their staff but also on public servants who had responded too readily to political pressure rather than attending to the public interest and the legal guardrails.

But can the tide of disgust, disbelief and frustration really be turned back? It’s a question that calls to mind the British political scientist Bernard Crick’s insistence that democratic politics must be defended even from itself. It is only by strengthening forums in which conflicts between interests can be resolved with civil discourse — argument, persuasion and negotiation of common goals — that democracy can be sustained.

That may be the ideal, but adversarial politics has a dark shadow. “The individual is tied into politics by its capacity to draw deeply on his feelings,” the Australian political scientist Alan Davies once argued. “[P]olitical leaders are like sculptors, whose medium is public emotion. It is only because people momentarily feel in common that they can for a while think alike.” But he went on to caution that politics often seems to channel the negative emotions.

Other political scientists have been blunter. “Politics has always been the systematic organisation of hatreds,” Henry Adams, scion of the famous political family, remarked in 1905; later, his fellow American Harold Lasswell nominated hatred as the leading political emotion.

In 1974, Davies set out to explore these suppositions using diaries recording how successive cohorts of his students felt about politics. Reading through their diaries he couldn’t identify a single day on which the positive emotions they recorded outweighed the negative ones. “In politics,” he concluded, “we are evidently hard to please, disposed to blame… [and] adept at finding ourselves angered, disillusioned and pained.”

Davies and his Melbourne University colleague Graham Little warned that we are primed, when times are tough, to accentuate the negative — especially when we have leaders adept at identifying the cause of disquiet and giving it a target. That skill has long been a gift to media outlets that drive sales by “exposing” the sources of our rage and resentment, but it has lately been turbocharged by the anger algorithms of social media.

These emotions — and especially resentment — have become the go-to explanation for the rise of Donald Trump in the turbulent politics of the past decade. But do they really explain what has been going on?

The American historian Robert Schneider sets out to test the evidence in his new book, The Return of Resentment: The Rise and Decline and Rise Again of Political Emotion. His subtitle immediately raises the question: did resentment ever go away? Given the emphasis that Davies, Little and their predecessors give to the ongoing role of emotions (including resentment) in mobilising political responses, it seems curious to argue that resentment might at some stage have dissipated.

Yet the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, published in 2003 and sponsored by the International Society of Political Psychology, contains no reference to resentment, and articles on the topic only began to accrue in the society’s journal, Political Psychology, when hyperpartisan politics and party fragmentation became more pressing concerns in the early 2000s. Theorists and historians of political thought, of which Schneider is one, might have more to tell us than do the current generation of political psychologists.

Schneider’s purpose is twofold. He wants to explore the gestation of the contemporary understanding of resentment in Western political thought; and he intends to demonstrate that resentment is complex and politically potent in ways that do not pertain to other emotions — which means that its re-emergence signifies something particular to our historical moment.

Much of The Return of Resentment is a compelling discussion of the identification of resentment, and debates about its meaning, from the sixteenth century until 2022. Schneider produces a tapestry in which certain threads are continuously interwoven. One thread concerns resentment’s contradictory elements: on the one hand, as a signal that something is wrong, that an injury demands a moral response and justice; on the other, as a destructive impulse with adverse effects both on its carriers and, at its extreme, on society.

He also traces resentment’s transition from the individual and interpersonal — as a product of proximity (think of witch hunts) to be ameliorated through civil discourse (one of the themes in eighteenth-century debate) — to the collective, after inter-class envy was sharpened by the bourgeois revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The rise of the bourgeoisie provoked a backlash from political and intellectual elites embodied most significantly in the “Nietzschean moment.” Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morality (1887), with its supposedly historical depiction of the inevitable division between masters and slaves, sought to account for but also denounce the ressentiment of the latter. These “slaves” couldn’t aspire to the higher values of their betters so they wanted to drag everybody down to their level. Nietzsche’s book was complemented by works including Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1895), which analysed the impulsiveness and irrationality of individuals seduced by crowd behaviour.

These nineteenth-century thinkers shifted the source of psychological disorder from the individual to the group. As contemporary institutions of governance emerged, their ideas fostered an implicit anti-democratic impulse among some intellectuals, political professionals and bureaucrats. Worried that people, lacking their expert knowledge, would too easily succumb to populist nonsense, they were all too ready to ascribe resistance to “rational plans” to the “pathology” of the crowd — a response that persists, as exemplified by Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate reference to the “basket of deplorables” supporting Trump.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835–40) took the argument a step further by pinpointing equality as the key value of the age. Although a levelling impulse might be expected to foster unity, in Tocqueville’s portrayal it instead generated heightened self-interest, individualism and an ever-vigilant jealousy lest any group gain an advantage over another.

Those threads persisted. But Schneider argues that a recognisable “resentment paradigm” was formulated after the twentieth century’s world wars and depression. Stimulated by the influential analysis of The Authoritarian Personality (1950) by the German sociologist Theodor Adorno and his co-authors, it was part of an attempt to make sense of Nazism and right-wing extremism and to guard against their return. Other sociologists and historians, including Talcott Parsons, Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell, attempted to distil the psychological disposition generated by economic and communal breakdown in interwar Germany that facilitated the anguish on which Hitler could draw.

This work was a warning that fairness and justice must be achieved lest conditions conducive to the heightened jealousy of some group over others should re-emerge. Normative codes of human rights and the Keynesian management of economic prosperity in the rebuilt Western economies were designed to facilitate relatively equal life chances and keep resentment at bay. The relative success of this postwar settlement saw the decline of resentment between the 1950s and the 1980s.

The 1960s generation mounted another form of resistance, hopeful rather than resentful, argues Schneider. This was a politics of authenticity and personal freedom against the stifling conformity that seemed endemic to the managed prosperity of the postwar order. To some extent it also opened the way for recognising the rights of the dispossessed and marginalised.

The justified resentment of the excluded — Black Americans, Indigenous people in settler societies, decolonising nations now free of imperial powers — persisted. Speaking for the oppressed, Frantz Fanon, an Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and philosopher from the French colony of Martinique, called for a transformative break from colonial “negritude” through an assertion of Black humanity and pride. The instrument of change would be action to challenge the colonial state’s monopoly of violence rather than a plea for recognition on the colonisers’ own terms.

In the United States, human rights activist Malcolm Little discarded the “White slavemaster” name he was given at birth and became Malcolm X, advocating radical action to secure justice and Black dignity. Martin Luther King dreamed instead of a redemptive future where all enjoyed equal rights; but he also urged, “[Don’t] get rid of your discontent, channel it into non-violent direct action.” Both approaches informed civil rights movements of the sixties and thereafter. And both men, despite their differences, were assassinated.

Those deaths, says Schneider, are a reminder that there were “two sixties,” and the other was partly a reaction to freedom movements, which seemed inimical to the established order, and partly a calculated mobilisation of elements of society in support of a conservative agenda. It was here — rather than in the radical student movements, the demands for self-determination and authenticity, the protests against postcolonial wars, or the civil rights organisations asserting Black rights — that the politics of resentment was reinvented.

Richard Nixon led the charge, evoking a “silent majority” of put-upon Americans who feared that all the benefits they had accrued since the war were threatened by liberals, “privileged” student protesters, “so-called intellectuals” and Black activists. Others took up the theme in ways that reached out to the “working man” and to Middle Americans alike.

On the one hand was philosopher Eric Hoffer’s “wistfully reactionary” appeal to “salt of the earth” Americans oppressed by intellectuals whose rule “went hand in hand with subjection or enslavement of those who do the world’s work.” On the other was John Updike’s representative of Middle America, the resentful everyman Rabbit Angstrom, striving fruitlessly to recover lost glory and a sense of purpose, beneath whose animus for Blacks, counterculture proponents and rich people lies “an amalgam of sadness, confusion and… loss which would increasingly characterise the psychological disposition of white men for generations to come.”

And so was born the Republicans’ “southern strategy” to mobilise the disgruntled white working class while appealing to suburbanites and small towns to vote in defence of their entitled lifestyles.

Resentment would not flourish immediately: Ronald Reagan’s approach was upbeat. Heralding “Morning in America,” he eschewed resentment politics, and his “compassionate conservatism” persisted right through to George W. Bush. But the seed planted by “the other sixties” ensured that resentment was always in the offing, and with the next phase of economic and social change — precipitated by Clinton- and Bush-era neoliberalism’s failure to deliver prosperity and choice fairly and by rapidly accelerating inequality — it would flower.

These were the circumstances that facilitated “the return of resentment”: a sense of people “cutting in” on ordinary Americans waiting for their enterprise to be rewarded; of cultural resentment against “others” who don’t comply with the American way; of unfair competition and powerlessness as industries closed or moved offshore; of being left behind and disempowered while riches were grasped by the very “elites” who had trumpeted the benefits of neoliberal policies — all of it amplified by the balkanisation of the public by identity politics and social media.

Donald Trump’s populist appeal was anchored in the recognition of just those elements, and his adept mobilisation of the feelings of anger, humiliation, victimisation and marginalisation they provoked. He promised to be the voice of the aggrieved and proffered his own victimisation by “the deep state” as evidence that “they” were coming for him, as ordinary people’s tribune.

It has been common to tie the rise of Trumpian resentment to angry white men, especially those without a university education whose livelihood and status have eroded. But this is true only to a point. Schneider points to his other significant sources of support, with professionals, white-collar workers and solidly middle-class people among those who stormed the Capitol on 6 January 2021.

Others have shown the differences in life experiences, income, education, ethnicity and religious affiliation between Democratic-voting districts, with their preponderance of knowledge workers benefiting from the modern service and digital economy, and Republican-voting districts, whose industrial and agricultural workers are most prey to the depredations of local production by free trade and globalisation. Hence, household incomes have declined in Republican districts relative to Democratic ones, with the gap between upper-income households and their middle- and lower-income counterparts rising, and the share of income held by middle-income households falling.

In seeking to understand the history and the sources of resentment, Schneider makes four thought-provoking points. First, he returns to Tocqueville’s theory that resentment is always a risk in democracies that claim to value equality, which means that a balance in political settlements must ensure that some are not left behind and most feel that fair competition applies. The implication is that this was achieved for decades following postwar reconstruction, but that the neoliberal era ushered in the Trumpian moment.

Second, resentment is always anti-pluralist: a call for fellow patriots (defending core values of “the people”) to unite against all others. Hence it is disruptive of social cohesion in the relatively multicultural societies that are now common.

Third, when resentment is triggered by social conditions or certain leaders it can prevail against rational discourse more potently than can other emotions — anger, disappointment, frustration or envy — because it consolidates all of them.

Fourth, significant dangers face those policymakers and intellectuals whom the aggrieved are resisting. They may ignore or underestimate the factors provoking resentment and dismiss the resentful as a minority of “deplorables” incapable of understanding what is needed. It is on this failure that a resentment entrepreneur like Trump can prosper.

But those feelings of injustice and moral injury — and grievance — can also be indicative of wrongs that should and can be rectified. The rights of marginalised Blacks and minorities, and of dispossessed and brutalised Indigenous peoples in settler societies, and reparations due to them cry out for such a response. Empathy, recognition and an acceptance of their memories are needed.

Schneider concludes by conceptualising dual modes of contemporary political resentment: a “threatened/left behind” model (applying to the embittered and envious, who are reactionary and prone to extreme political expression) and a “comparison/discrepancy” model (that might also prove fractious and polarising but can alert us to injustices or inequities that should be addressed).

Despite the conceptual distinctiveness of these models, Schneider argues that we should conceive of a continuum of resentment, and in all cases try to empathise with the aggrieved to the extent needed to understand their disquiet. It is a warning against seeing resentment as an emotional trait of others, and against pathologising and delegitimising people’s claims and grievances.

What does all this mean for Australia? Bruce Wolpe’s recently released book, Trump’s Australia: How Trumpism Changed Australia and the Shocking Consequences for Us of a Second Term, translates the American experience — and resentment politics — into a message about how its ally must prepare for the possibility of a second Trump presidency.

This is a more contained and polemical exercise than Schneider’s. Wolpe starts with personal history: of growing up in Washington, working as a staffer in Congress, and seeing up close the transitions from Kennedy and his Democrat successors, through Reagan, Nixon and the Bushes, to the Republicans’ deal with the Devil, manifest in the election of Trump.

Like Schneider, Wolpe acknowledges Reagan’s upbeat optimism. He sees the source of the rot in Nixon and Watergate, and its coming to fruition in Sarah Palin’s failed candidacy for vice-president in John McCain’s campaign, which “scratched an itch among white voters who felt let down and driven out by establishment politics.”

His analysis, then, presents a version of the “threatened/left behind” model amped up by a leader who capitalised on fear and division. He doesn’t underestimate the likelihood that fear and threat will win again in 2024, but nor does he give much attention to the extent of disquiet that motivates Trump’s base. Arguably, he tells us nothing new about the extent of the chaos, disregard of norms and mendacious destructiveness of Trump’s term in office, but his deft touch and capacity to interpret political developments through personal history makes for a persuasive narrative.

Wolpe deals in detail with Trump and Australia’s foreign policy, Trump and Australia’s domestic policy, and the future of democracy in America and Australia. All of it is thought-provoking, though it boils down to an existential crisis for democracy captured in a series of “what-ifs.”

What if Trump cripples, even destroys NATO and the United Nations, smashes climate agreements, forms an alliance with Putin, surrenders Taiwan to China and withdraws troops and naval forces from the Asia-Pacific? What if he declares martial law, uses troops to contain protests, ignores court orders and legislation, jails political enemies, shuts down certain media, directs regulatory agencies to target individuals and companies deemed unfriendly, completes the process of ensuring compliant officials and Republican legislatures can overturn the popular vote in the electoral college? What if he even cancels elections?

Despite Wolpe’s useful attention to the danger of Australia’s adopting Trump-like policies — and our susceptibility to covert racism, inadequate campaign finance regulation, insufficient control of misinformation and disinformation in social media, and Trumpian appeals to division in mainstream media and campaigning — he points out that the most extreme domestic threat, to the electoral process, cannot succeed in Australia. Here, the electoral guardrails — mandatory voting, preferential voting, an independent electoral commission, and anti-corruption agencies at state and federal levels — will prevent executive excess and caprice. America would indeed benefit if such institutional guardrails could be introduced there.

We need to be attuned, meanwhile, to how we can resist the potential collapse of the rules-based international order: by strengthening alliances in the Asia-Pacific and with other middle-order powers, pursuing our own relations with China, not entrusting too much to great, powerful and electorally volatile friends (as we’ve done with AUKUS), and contributing to the strengthening of the United Nations.

Perhaps the missing ingredient in Wolpe’s book is a recognition of those times when political settlements served to abate inequality, enabling fair life chances, fending off resentment and promoting trust — in institutions and in each other — to prevent the erosion of democratic processes. Schneider is conscious of such cycles and the necessity of their restoration if democratic guardrails are to be reinforced. Wolpe see hope in the Albanese government and Biden’s efforts, but it is hope hedged by global challenges that foreshadow potential recession and disillusion.

All of which leads to the final great what-if: what if an America in accelerated decline in 2024 feels more like Germany in the 1930s than America in the 1990s? We know what the German people decided ninety years ago. Will the malign sculptors of public emotion be empowered once more? •

The Return of Resentment: The Rise and Decline and Rise Again of a Political Emotion
By Robert A. Schneider | University of Chicago Press | $47.95 | 312 pages

Trump’s Australia: How Trumpism Changed Australia and the Shocking Consequences for Us of a Second Term
By Bruce Wolpe | Allen & Unwin | $34.99 | 320 pages