The Word Of The Day Is “Ressentiment”

Julian Sanchez:

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.

Conor Friedersdorf at Sully’s place:

With regard to status hierarchy, consider the term “the mainstream media” as used on the right — it is telling that hosts on Fox News whose books make the New York Times bestseller list and whose ratings are higher than anyone on CNN unironically denigrate that network as part of “The MSM,” as if they’re somehow outside of mainstream infotainment. There is also the “Fair and Balanced” slogan. Taken literally, without the baggage journalism produced by Roger Ails and company has given it, those words express values that the average Columbia Journalism Review staffer would champion. Despite the pose, however, what Fox News has done isn’t to improve upon the biased journalism so often denigrated by the conservative base — it has instead self-consciously created its own version of that bias. Imitation, flattery, yada yada yada.

That is one perverse tragedy of the present political moment. The left has its flaws, as all political coalitions do, and the right has offered valid critiques of these blind spots and excesses over the years, but rather than creating an improvement on CNN, or identity politics, or Medicare scare-mongering, or Bush Derangement Syndrome, the present leaders of Conservative Inc. regard these as tactics that worked for the left, and are thus worth emulating.

The other perverse tragedy?

The conservative base is right to oppose certain policies born of an elite, New York to DC corridor consensus, and right to feel that they are sometimes disrespected by elites, but the folks they count on to look out for them — the leaders of Conservative Inc. — often disrespect them most profoundly, playing them for bigger fools than anyone else. Inevitably, you’ll see some bloggers on the right cite this blog post as another instance where I am supposedly disloyal to conservatives, but search the archives of their blogs to see whether they’ve ever objected when people on the right far more wealthy and influential than I am enrich themselves by selling out the health and wealth of the base. To confront these people would be to admit that they’re being taken for a ride — and that too often, they’re helping to navigate.

David Frum at FrumForum:

Resentment of cultural condescension has long been a powerful conservative theme, and with justice. People on the progressive or liberal side have often viewed American society as a reactionary mess that must be uplifted by those who know best. If the people on the receiving end of the uplift resist, well that resistance can be circumvented in the courts or bureaucracies.

So when conservatives over the decades resisted busing – or Roe v. Wade – or judicially decreed same-sex marriage -they could speak not only for traditional values, but also for democracy. Powerful.

But over the past half dozen years, the resentment of meddling elites has cut loose from actual policies or politics. Conservatives now often complain about “elite” domination of “the culture” as a problem in itself, independent of any specific  abuse of power.

Conservatives are not wrong to notice that cultures are shaped by elites. (Once upon a time, the significance of elites was a great conservative intellectual theme – against those on the left who argued that what really mattered was folk culture and folkways. When Bill Buckley opened Firing Line with a theme from the Brandenburg concertos, it was not only because he liked Bach. He was rebuking those old lefties like Paul Robeson who rejected high culture for sea shanties and Appalachian reels.)

But what conservatives may fail to hear is the under-message broadcast by this railing against elites and their power. That message is: “We feel like the losers of American society. Join us – so you can be a loser too.” Not very appealing, is it?

Do the conservatives who complain about the evil influence of unnamed “elites” over “the culture” ever notice the buried message in their complaints – which is that they feel like cultural losers?

Will Wilkinson


I agree with almost everything Julian Sanchez says about the distinction between schadenfreude and ressentiment, and how the latter, not the former, is what ails the Republicans today. He might have gone a step further and pointed out tht ressentiment, per Nietzsche, is Christianity’s natural home. In Genealogy of Morals (and elsewhere) he isolates it as the mainspring of a slave morality, in odious comparison to the heroic morality that is Nietzsche’s beau ideal. There’s whole academic industry devoted to the task of expunging this blood libel, but the concept does continue to raise its head.

Alex Massie:

Now, clearly, this doesn’t apply to Republicans such as Mitch Daniels in Indiana. (Or most of the other governors in fact.) But as a summary of the state of conservative-leaning media and the movement’s “leadership” it’s not bad at all.


I remember, way back in my Ashcroftian Christian childhood, how beset the people in my church believed themselves to be. Admittedly, much of this was a literal belief in the existence of malign spiritual influences behind most of what was considered objectionable in the world. But there was a general sense that we evangelicals were a bulwark around the battered remains of moral decency and right thinking. This despite the fact that you couldn’t swing a maypole in my hometown without hitting three churches. This aggrevied sense of victimhood, of persecution clearly informs the majority of rhetoric spouted at various Tea Parties.

Like Sanchez, I think things are going to get worse before they get better. While the GOP is almost certain to pick up a passel of seats in the upcoming midterm elections, heaven only knows what they will do with more influence, other than have more voices to sing the same dissonant chorus. I keep wanting to shake the Republicans and say “you’re better than this!” and they keep wanting to prove that they’re not.

UPDATE: Rod Dreher

E.D Kain at The League

James Joyner

UPDATE #2: Mike Farmer

Robert Stacy McCain

Conor Friedersdorf at Sully’s place in response

Julian Sanchez

UPDATE #3: More Sanchez


Filed under Conservative Movement, Go Meta, Politics

3 responses to “The Word Of The Day Is “Ressentiment”

  1. When someone whines about elitists, they usually mean, “someone not stupid, petty, small minded and reactionary like me”. The idea that “pissing off” liberals, or anyone else, is some sign of wisdom is so childish it makes me laugh. We have a culture that has been dumbed down beneath the ground by talk radio logic.
    While i don’t think Global Warming is linked directly to CO2, SUV drivers are the ultimate hypocrites, cause they usually preface their selfishness masquerading as moral (non) virtue that they are good enviros otherwise. BS, cars may run cleaner but they still spew old fashioned bad stuff like CO, NOx, Sulfer compounds, hydrocarbons, etc. SUVs pollute more out of the tailpipe as well as in the production of the extra oil, gas, rubber, metal and plastic they waste.

  2. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

  3. I just love your comments, Mr. Lake. One of the implications of Sanchez’ ressentiment thesis is that the conservatives so afflicted are blinded by their feelings and emotions. I just love political partisans such as yourself who exhibit the exact same malady in such technicolor precision. Sanchez’ article is about conservatives, but if anyone cared to, they could write a similar one about you.

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