- How It Works
Mitch McConnell’s now infamous remark that student loan forgiveness, which he labels as socialism, comes as a “slap in the face” to working families and all who have paid off their loans, provides a blatant example of the effective use of the politics of resentment. Both the left and the right sides of our politics make use of resentment to arouse their bases, but while the Democratic Party (especially its progressive side) more likely fosters resentment of the ultra-rich, extremists in the Republican Party stoke the fires of white working class people’s resentment toward the poor (seen as lazy), immigrants (pictured as invaders), the educated (regarded as privileged, snooty, and out of touch), “people of color” (perceived as “not us”), and the young (smeared as whiners).
Politicians and their acolytes on television, radio, and white supremacist web sites are also fanning the flames of Christian nationalism. Here in Pennsylvania, we have a candidate for governor who claims to want to make PA a “Christian state.” Reportedly, that candidate has assured us that Jews will not have to leave the state, which may sound (falsely and arrogantly) benevolent but really identifies a targeted enemy. Not surprisingly, his opponent is Jewish. So, this viciously fake tolerance fits right in with the extremist chant from Charlottesville, “Jews will not replace us!”
Resentment is an insidiously effective motivator for bringing together people who feel they are being wronged and driving them toward contempt, not only for the vulnerable they see as threatening their way of life, but also for the political party they are persuaded is to blame for the alleged unfairness. What is this outrage being stoked, and where does it come from? It is based upon the belief that people should have to deserve what they get and should get what they deserve. To the resentful religious mind, God should be in charge of seeing to it that such a system of rewards and punishments works and keeps working. The idea is that people who suffer should deserve their suffering, and those who prosper should deserve their prosperity. Further (and crucially important to the power seekers who fan the flames of resentment), a person’s condition should be taken as a reliable indication of what that person deserves (unless someone, such as the opposition party or the unworthy “other,” has treated that virtuous person unfairly). In short, if I don’t get and keep what I believe I deserve, someone is being unfair to me.
Resentment comes as an angry response to shame. The psychiatrist and theorist Donald L. Nathanson gave us a “compass of shame” indicating the four reactions of people to the shame affect they experience when the good they expect seems cut off or denied. The four points on the compass are (1) withdrawal, (2) attack self, (3) avoidance, and (4) attack other. The politics of resentment encourages the fourth response. It’s a shame that those lazy, no good, freeloading people are having their debt forgiven after you did the hard, responsible, upstanding work of paying yours off! That kind of thing. Notice that anger toward those people now to be resented is intensified by disgust for them. In his first presidential campaign, Donald Trump frequently and vehemently called “disgusting” whatever groups of people he wanted his audience to resent and come to hate.
I suggest a self-testing in steps. When listening to politicians or the media political talkers who promote them, ask:
• Am I being encouraged to resent a group of people and, if so, what group?
• Is this group truly responsible for my situation that “seems a shame,” or are they merely being given something I’m supposed to think belongs to me but not to them? Is it even something I don’t have, or just something I’m supposed to believe I deserve but they don’t?
• Is this group powerful in our society, or are they vulnerable and so easy to attack?
• Am I being encouraged to think or just to get angry?
• Would denying this resented group the help, benefits, respect, or rights they seek have a positive effect upon my life and the life of the nation, or is my anger being used to benefit someone seeking power?
• Is the politician or media speaker urging me to support a solution to a problem of human suffering or deprivation, or just trying to make me angry and resentful and so gain my support?
I paid off my student loans when doing so was much easier and the interest lower. My education opened the doors for the career I was pursuing in addition to teaching me to think and keep learning for the rest of my life. Should I now resent student loan forgiveness? Am I supposed to adopt the toxic attitude of, “Nobody gave me anything. I made my own way and worked for everything I got!”? Those statements would both be lies, self-deceptions. I received a lot of help, and back then the path toward a career was much clearer and much more likely to lead me into that career. Should I now allow myself to be controlled by a hate-preaching demagogue? I would be letting myself be degraded into a bitter. resentful person, and I might very well find myself getting angry at any friend or family member who dared suggest that helping or even just respecting the people I had been led to resent might be the right thing to do.
In my next post, I’ll start to ask what Jesus has to do with this issue of the politics of resentment. Two of his parables, including his likely most famous (the Prodigal Son), speak to this issue and call upon the resentful to open their minds and hearts. Resentment is a poison. Politicians, media talkers, and preachers who call forth our resentments and play upon them to turn us against the vulnerable in our society are toxic, and their ways are evil. Resentment makes us weak and bitter. It robs us of empathy and so degrades our humanity.