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The Psychology of Resentment

wuming's picture

Lately I've been thinking about the politics of resentment.

I was talking with a friend of mine about why people of modest means continue to shill for policies which make their lives worse. I theorize that it comes mostly from the desire to avoid a self-hating narrative.

[First in a weekly series]
The classic example is the person who hates government workers or unionized manufacturing employees for having health insurance, higher wages or longer vacations. You can see this lament on internet forums, or hear it on talk radio. Generally it goes like this "I work hard every day and I don't have it as good as those people, it's people like them that are ruining the economy, by asking for too much in these tough times." When I hear it on talk radio, the voice often sounds tight and angry, on the verge of panic.

One way of dealing without his argument is to point out the facts of how the economy actually works. However, I'm more interested in the self-narrative at work, since the self-narrative is remarkably resistant to facts.

What's at work is that the speaker doesn't believe that he* deserves to have higher wages, real health insurance benefits and paid vacation. If you talk to people like this (and I do, regularly) what you'll also notice is that they really buy into a narrative of sole self-reliance-- they see themselves as lone agents who are solely responsible for their success or failure.

People who hold this view of sole self-reliance must believe that they do not deserve better in life. If they believed that they deserved more than they have currently, it would indicate that they are a failure. Therefore, in order to preserve their belief in their own agency, they must believe that they do not deserve better.

Tune in next week, when I'll be writing about the strengths and illusions of the self-reliance narrative.

*I'm using the male pronoun here because it's mostly angry men that I hear on the radio yelling these things.

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quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

That seems like just one more layer of cognitive acrobatics justifying something else.

They'd have to go demand their rights from their employers. That takes effort, courage, and the terrifying possibility of losing livelihood.

Much easier to blame the "undeserving."

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

in order to preserve their belief in their own agency, they must believe that they do not deserve better.

No, they think they have earned better, but contemptuous elite liberal politicians have taken away what they've earned and given it to those people! All organizations except business and real Bible-believing churches are thuggish special interest groups. That includes unions, women who are not adequately dependent on men, minorities, and government workers (aka bureaucrats who spend all their time taking away my freedom and giving special privileges to those people).

It's resentment, not feelings of being undeserving. They really do think that if the policies that protect their class were removed, they'd rise to the top, or at least be better off than they are now.

Cleaver's picture
Submitted by Cleaver on

and all the comments and links so far are part of the problem. And so is Thomas Frank, as is Barack Obama, whose remarks about "bitter clingers" belong to the same worldview as Frank's.

Racism plays a part, of course, since the U.S. is still, as Susan Sontag wrote some forty years ago (in Styles of Radical Will), "a passionately racist country," which means that white racism obtains in every sphere of American activity and at every level of American socioeconomic reality. This means that racism cannot be usefully discussed apart from socioeconomic class, and the converse is also true. (And affluent white liberal Americans, with their race obsessions, would also do well to remember that even though most of the slaves in the U.S. were African Americans, African Americans were not the only people whose slave labor was exploited in the socioeconomic history of our country.) Sontag wrote, in the vernacular of her day:

I do not think that white America is committed to granting equality to the American Negro. So committed are only a minority of white Americans, mostly educated and affluent, few of whom have had any prolonged social contact with Negroes.

Quite. And nothing has changed, as Sontag predicted.

I'm sure I will be corrected if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that it's been a very long time -- I'd say the Johnson administration -- since a Democratic president or anyone else has done anything substantive to improve the conditions of lower-middle-class white people, that is, poor or at least economically insecure whites who don't have labor unions fighting for them, however ineffectually these days (those would be working-class whites). In fact, the lower middle class in general has been "disappeared" along with the working class; both are routinely referred to as "middle class" in the criminal monopolies that constitute our aggressively ignorant media.

But there is a big difference between the working class and the lower middle class, and a big difference between the lower middle class and the actual (vanishing) middle class. And, yes, some of that difference is expressed in the form of various resentments -- of unions, "minorities," and so on. But consider that this may be so because poor whites, including the white lower middle class, are a socioeconomic segment virtually without champions in the larger society or in government. Not only that, they're the targets of virtually every other group, white and "minority," rich and poor. If they act like victims, maybe it's because in some very real ways they are victims.

Case in point: latte liberals love to psychoanalyze poor and lower-middle-class whites and subject them to other forms of disparagement, including outright ridicule. Latte liberals also have a very nasty habit of projecting their own confusing and therefore repressed white racism onto poor and lower-middle-class whites (who, as already acknowledged, have plenty of their own white racism, just like all other white Americans).

Latte liberals, of course, are the children and grandchildren of the "limousine liberals" who were so keen to bus the children of lower-middle-class white families to inner-city black schools in the 1960s. Rarely, if memory serves, were public school students in these liberals' own lily-white affluent communities asked to board the bus, and their own children attended private schools.

This is not to say that anyone's racism should be excused or that school segregation should not end (and of course segregation has never gone away). But there's a reason why Reagan Democrats supported Bill Clinton for "ending welfare as we knew it." If you're white and poor in a passionately racist society (that is, a society in which every white person is racist), and if your only leg up is the illegitimate privilege that comes with white skin (that is, if you are not one of the rich white people who enjoy the luxury of "not knowing" how much their good fortune owes to their white skin), then you might tend to place what may look, to a latte liberal, like an unseemly amount of emphasis on that white skin of yours, and you might cause that latte liberal to clutch his or her pearls over your embarrassing levels of bigotry, stupidity and resentment, because naturally the latte liberal, being from a higher social order, knows better than you do what your "own interests" are.

And if you are a latte liberal going on about the so-called politics of resentment, you will tend to sound rather like Barack Obama, at large in the bitter backwaters of Pennsylvania in 2008. It's likely that poor and lower-middle-class white people will want little or nothing to do with you and the politics that your analysis represents.

nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

The politics of resentment are actually more alive and well among the better-off than among the lower-income populations. White affluent males are more highly represented than any other demographic in very conservative small-government beliefs. I've never known a conservative white suburbanite who didn't think he was the smartest guy in the room, and would have been richer than Bill Gates if government didn't take away his money. The people declaiming, "We can't afford government workers' pensions" are by and large from this group.

Your latte liberals come across as a stereotype carefully and lovingly promoted by the Washington bipartisan elite.

Cleaver's picture
Submitted by Cleaver on

What you say there is self-evident. In fact, the truth you point to is one of the reasons why I challenged the premises of the original post, as you also seem to be doing.

If you find the term "latte liberal" not to your liking, just substitute "Whole Foods Nation" or any other synonym for the left/liberal wing of the higher social orders (and their agents).

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

Since you've seen fit to try to tar me with the "latte liberal" label, let me be the first to tell you that you don't know jack shit about me or what I have done. You don't know, for example, that I worked blue collar jobs (one union, one not) during my last couple summers of high school and first few summers of college. Both of those were physically demanding jobs that required me to be on my feet most of the time, and in one I had the joy of being exposed to industrial chemicals and lots of dangerous power tools.

And if you're trying to put me in with Obama's comments about bitter people clinging to guns and religion, then you really have no idea where I'm coming from. I am a former NRA member (love the magazine, you can't beat their gun reviews, though the politics....) and have participated in shooting sports since I was a teenager. I have no problem with gun ownership, in fact, I think everyone should own an AR-15. I have no problems with religion either, since I recognize it as a universal human desire to find meaning and belonging in life.

Now that we've cleared up that you don't know anything about me, what I've experienced, and what I've done, let's discuss the substance of your argument. You claim that "It's likely that poor and lower-middle-class white people will want little or nothing to do with you and the politics that your analysis represents."

Frankly, we have to lead with the truth. In my experience working in blue collar jobs, I have learned that straight talk and not backing down are the only means to gain respect. The fact is that the politics of resentment are driven by avoiding feelings of shame at not being able to achieve (singlehandedly) the level of benefits that other people have. This is important, because our task then becomes showing people how 1) they DO deserve a better quality of life 2) it's not their fault that they can't get it on their own because, ultimately 3)improving one's standard of living requires collective action. THAT is the truth, and we have to get that across clearly. If that requires straight talk then so be it.

Submitted by lambert on

"Lead with the truth!" although our perception will vary with our position or station. (And there are many truths; which is most important?) That said, the whole calculation, framing thing; it's almost like one of those intermediate constructs Jack Crow spoke up; using those devices we put on our priestly robes to talk to the other. Wrong!

Cleaver's picture
Submitted by Cleaver on

I do know those things about you that you say I do not know. I know these things from reading your earlier (better, IMO) work along these lines. I find these things about you very interesting and in some respects admirable. And I too believe that we should all know how to handle a gun, and I'm with you on live-and-let-live religiosity.

I worked blue collar jobs (one union, one not) during my last couple summers of high school and first few summers of college. Both of those were physically demanding jobs that required me to be on my feet most of the time, and in one I had the joy of being exposed to industrial chemicals and lots of dangerous power tools.

In other words, this kind of work and these environments were exceptions to the rest of your life, before and after. They were summer jobs. You learned things about blue-collar reality and blue-collar people while working in these summer jobs. That is good. But the fact that they were summer jobs tends to confirm my initial impression of the perspective from which your original post was written. I don't know whether you were born into the class that performs such work on a permanent basis, and ultimately it doesn't matter, because the way you describe this experience suggests a comfortable distance, inherent or acquired, from this environment as a daily reality.

You haven't addressed the substance of my comment, which really had to do not with blue-collar workers (unionized or not) but with poor (not destitute) whites, a group that notably includes the widely misunderstood lower middle class (as opposed to the so-called working class).

Many people from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds conflate the working class and the lower middle class. But lower-middle-class white people who actually are from the lower middle class (that is, who are not working-class people mistaking themelves for lower-middle-class people) never make that mistake. In fact, the difference is a point of pride to them.*

I think you are absolutely correct that nothing can change without collective action. That is precisely what unionized blue-collar workers understand -- and what lower-middle-class whites actively resist. Are you at all interested in what I had to say about why the white lower middle class can seem and be so intransigent (that is, are you interested in what's really the matter with Kansas)? Or are you completely committed to your "politics of resentment" theme, and to the psychoanalyzing that goes with it?

I agree with you about leading with the truth. That is what I was doing in my previous comment, and my truth included my anger at the class politics of your post. Where my anger took the form of sarcasm, it was clearly not helpful in getting my point across.

In my experience -- admittedly limited, like everyone else's -- the white middle-class and upper-middle-class activist is often a good ally of working-class people, and that's a good thing. But he or she also tends to react quite defensively when his or her class politics are called to his or her attention by people from the lower middle class (not by people from the working class).**

A typical self-defensive move is for the activist to tout his or her working-class cred, and in a rather censorious way. For reasons that I've been trying to make clear, that move necessarily alienates the white lower-middle-class critic and becomes part of a dynamic that reinforces the animosity of the white lower middle class toward the working class -- and toward the white liberal upper class and its upper-middle-class agents. In other words, such defensiveness is counterproductive and exacerbates the very problem of "what's the matter with Kansas."

Anyway, thanks for your long and in many ways thoughtful response to my comment. I will point out, however, that it also enacts and encapsulates the same class dynamic that my comment attempted to analyze.

* Some of the terminology here has been degraded both by the media (which, as I pointed out earlier, falsely labels both groups "middle class") and by the virtual disappearance (since the Reagan era) of much of the economic basis of the lower middle class. (Paul Fussell, as early as 1983, was relabeling this group as "high proletarian," by contrast with a "mid proletarian" segment, which would include most unioninzed and some nonunionized blue-collar workers.) For convenience' sake, I am using Vance Packard's basic terminology, which most Americans also use, whether they realize it or not.

** Again in my experience, the higher the white activist's position in the class structure, the lower his or her defensiveness. I have my ideas about why that is so.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

I didn't respond to the second part of your comment because I simply did not understand what point you were trying to make. You admit that you posted out of anger, and it showed because what was there in your post was incoherent.

It sounded like you were saying I didn't have the right class background to criticize lower middle class whites, and then that I didn't account for racism. You also raised some concerns that no one has done anything substantive for lower middle class whites in terms of government programming. You then went on to complain that latte liberals clutch their pearls when they see bigotry because they just don't understand how bad lower middle class whites have it. You also derisively referred to latte liberals "loving to psychoanalyze people" and the disparagement that comes with it.

So if I had then discussed racism in my post, you would by your own argument above, have jumped on me for "clutching my pearls."

Regarding racism, I'm well aware that it exists, and I'll address that in my blog post this week. I'm interested in the internal logic of resentment because I'm interested in finding allies, and in developing analytical tools that further that goal. Therefore, looking at the psychology of resentment becomes important as a way to reach people who are potentially in that situation. If someone feels resentment toward others as a result of 1) feeling undeserving as a way of 2) protecting themselves from shame/guilt over not being a lone cowboy, then logically the goal should be to 1) show people that they DO deserve better 2) that no one can succeed alone, and thereby 3) remove the guilt/shame that people feel at not being able to a lone cowboy.

I looked over your further comments and conversation with Valhalla, and see that you wanted to talk more about latte liberals and their upward social mobility and how it blinds them (and by implication, me) to the lack of hope that many lower middle class whites experience. I guess I am not going to be able to win the oppression olympics going on between the two of you, so I'm not going to bother engaging with your argument.

Valhalla's picture
Submitted by Valhalla on

It's not that those who are resentful don't think they deserve what others (for some definition of others) have, it's that they think they do deserve it just as much but are not getting it.

I actually have a big quarrel with the underlying premises here, because I'm heartily sick of the prevailing idea that "those people" simply don't understand their own interests, but "we" do understand them and it's simply bewildering that they won't defer to our superior judgment.

Personally, I'm dead against the tax-cut obsession of the Tea Partiers. But I do understand that tax cuts sounds like money in my pocket. And when you're on the margin, or feel severely insecure about your future, that's a significant thing. Especially if you look around and don't see the government using your tax money to your benefit or anyone else you know, but what you do have pointed out to you ad nauseam through the relentless media is that other people are getting something you're not. That's what fuels resentment. And these days it's mightily fed by the anxiety and fear people have about their situations and the distinct insecurity of their futures.

Even minimally good government, which we don't have and don't have likely prospects of having, will spend money in a way that everyone is better off. That's not a difficult connection to make. But that's not the alternative people see. That's not what people have experienced for most of the last 40 years. And if there's money floating around and it's not going toward making us all better off, then why shouldn't it stay in my pocket?

Anyway, before I go on too long, here's a very good discussion, promted by votermom, of some of the things fueling what you are terming resentment but which is probably more appropriately thought of as anger and fear.

Cleaver's picture
Submitted by Cleaver on

Thanks also for the link to votermom's discussion. The comments there are valuable, too, in particular this one from you concerning

the mythology of the left that [we] have an exclusive claim on populism, and [our denial] that Palin’s popularity is in part . . . the visible face of a populist movement based on populist rage [and] that the source of that rage is understandable.


My whole point, perhaps less than skillfully expressed above, is that the economically insecure white lower middle class is the class that will produce the next far-right-wing populist demagogue. But that class can also produce an Elizabeth Warren.

The left has an interest in doing what we can to encourage the emergence of more Warrens -- and in not doing those things that encourage the emergence of more Palins. And too often the self-styled creative class actively encourages Palinism by the way its agents think and talk about and talk to (pace, lambert) "the class that no one belongs to and everyone hates."

Valhalla's picture
Submitted by Valhalla on

I think you're original comment really nailed it.

One thing you said I really wanted to pick up on:

I don't know whether you were born into the class that performs such work on a permanent basis, and ultimately it doesn't matter, because the way you describe this experience suggests a comfortable distance, inherent or acquired, from this environment as a daily reality.

Without any personal reference to wuming's experience, I've been trying for a while to figure out how to say something additional. Bear with me, because I don't think I've quite got it yet:

Something I've rarely seen reflected in political writing about both working-class and lower middle class populations is that part of their daily reality is a projected future that is very, very different from middle-class and upper-class groups. Even in good economic times, the future isn't imagined as a series of white collar jobs with promotions or upwardly mobile career changes or any sort of participation in the club for which that kind of thinking is common.

If you perform blue collar work on a permanent basis today, chances are you'll be working that same blue collar job (if you're lucky) when you retire (again, if you're lucky) or when you die. That gives you a totally different sense of the future than those who are from middle to upper classes. Generally, your present is highly insecure -- in that you're mostly one unexpected event away from homelessness or destitution or desperation -- but you know your future's going to be mostly more of the same.

Unless your daily reality actually is that kind of sense of the future -- not the one where you had a college graduation full of speeches about the endless possibilities laid out before you, but the one where (if you're lucky) you get to rise at dawn to start the factory dayshift at 6am -- it's very difficult to truly empathize, no matter how much time you spend as a fellow traveler.

I think this was a huge part of why Obama's Hopey Changey messaging failed to resonate with both working class and lower middle class whites. Because even if Obama had brought about the Great Whatever, they never thought that they'd get to participate in it anyway.

Cleaver's picture
Submitted by Cleaver on

Sorry for another long comment, but I find this topic fascinating.

Lately I've been reading Privilege, by Shamus Rahman Khan, about the production of inequality by way of a faux meritocracy at St. Paul's School in Concord, NH. You might find this book interesting, in view of what you've written here about class-circumscribed conceptualizations of the future.

The author's central thesis, laid out in a very readable way, is that while the old American aristocracy is dead, the American elite is alive and not only well but thriving. This new elite, which now has the appearance of greater inclusiveness (and is in fact somewhat more inclusive), is based on earned privilege, different from hereditary entitlement in that it is supposedly accumulated on the basis of personal, individual merit. The book dissects the process by which students are literally taught to embody elite privilege so that its "marks" appear natural and inborn, and so that the hierarchies that create and perpetuate elite privilege are made to "disappear."

Barack Obama supplies one of the epigraphs to the book's preface. He is, through and through, a member of the new American elite -- and, I would argue, much more so than other African Americans who have also found themelves admitted to the fold. (Indeed, his having spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, rather than being a "leveler" of sorts, is itself a very mark of his elite inheritance from his foundation-funded mother -- you know, that "white woman from Kansas" [snort].) In addition, Obama, as he rose, did not have to juggle the same contradictions that Michelle and others would have confronted as the descendants of slaves, and as the children of African American urban and/or working people.

So I think you are right about why the groups we're discussing didn't even begin to buy the shiny new object that was Obama circa 2008. They knew -- they corporeally sensed -- that Obama is a member of the elite and that the hope 'n' change would not apply to them. (And it's interesting that the "Bittergate" story was broken by Mayhill Fowler, one of Obama's white upper-middle-class supporters, who hesitated at first and ultimately chose to do the right thing, but only on the basis of her journalistic code of ethics.) That the "creative class" singled out these working-class/lower-middle-class voters (not to mention Hillary and especially Bill Clinton) as "racists" was itself as elitist as it was cruel and stupid.*

* This is not at all to say that racism played no part in their reaction to Obama. But my sense is that racism was, for them, no more important a factor (and probably a less important one) than it was for the white elites who supported Obama for racial reasons. Not the least of those reasons was to emphasize the putative moral distance and the indisputable social distance between themselves and the despised lower orders.

okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

When people start talking about lower class, working class, lower-middle class, middle class, upper-middle class, lower-upper class, upper class and upper-upper class in America as being distinct, separable things, and then divide if further for each race, immigrant group, and then region, first, it makes my head swim, because I have absolutely no idea what each of those supposedly clearly-defined class groups actually mean, and second, fancying myself a well-read, perceptive person, wonder if I can't figure it out, can the people who are supposedly in each of those groups figure out which group they are in, so they know what their supposed, class-based, best interest is?

Which ain't to say this discussion isn't useful, just that the terminology is inadequate.

Take my own experience. I went to all the best schools (while working lower class jobs like dishwasher, party-tent installer, carpenter, etc.). I belong to clubs. My hobbies are those of the upper class. I was able to afford private Montessori for my child. I have close friends that are part of that upper 400-1000 people bracket. I own a (struggling) company. But also, my mom grew up with three sisters and a widowed mom on welfare in a Nebraska farm town of 50 people during the Depression. My dad grew up in a family of thirteen, fixing truck tires on the side of a dirt road in a Third World country. What class am I?

I'm white, but not white, because I'm also 'brown'. What race am I?

My wife on the other hand, is pretty clearly white, working middle-class, in other words, from a long-time union railroading family. But she too went to college, and shares all my interests, and had a middle-management career. Did she change classes?

Then I know people who were born in the upper, or upper-middle classes, and via divorce and/or stupidity and/or parental and/or personal drug addiction, it's all gone. The money is gone, or the reputation is gone, or both, and they are banging nails or waiting tables, with no prospect, beside marriage, out of that existence.

My point is there is an awful lot of gray area, and much more class mobility upward and downward in the US than in other countries, and so using class as a defining factor of our life is very tricky business. Regardless, if there is a main source of resentment among people of ALL classes, it is that the opportunities for them, and their children to move into an upper-class, or just a better class of life in general, are rapidly dwindling and being stolen from them (in their not-wrong estimation).

Apologies if I've trotted out this anecdote before. I sometimes take fishing trips with my father-in-law. He's retired with a good union pension and a healthy side business installing kitchens, and has all the time and money he needs to take all the hunting and fishing trips he wants, and that's all he wants. But as we drive past right-to-life posters and posters for Tea-Party fuckwit Chip Cravaack, the spittle flies when he says "So how's that working out for ya?" (referring to his co-workers who were suckered into the Republican, race-baiting, culture wars) and "Ya know Reagan destroyed this country for the working man!". Reagan set out to destroy unionism, and he succeeded, by exploiting race (anyone remember "reverse discrimination"?), and religious, as well as class, divisions.

How's that working out for ya, Tea-Partiers?

Now there are a lot of dumb-fucks in this world (in every class) who are distracted by shiny objects, so let's leave them out of the equation, aside from them, most of the working, and lower-middle class, and middle-class, and even lower-upper-middle class people I know are really driven by two goals for the future: stable personal finances, where they can plan for the future and plan for their retirement, and a good education and future for their kids. That's about it. Most people have given up on bettering their situation with a bigger house, or newer, fancier car, or luxury trips to far-off places except as maybe distant stretch goals. All most people want now is stability, and the hope that their kids are going to have a better future. I think if we start there as "what do they really want", that is a good place to go.

Submitted by lambert on

By background, I'm a member of the old aristocracy, as is immediately clear from my writing style (the professional, and not the financial or industrial, I should add).

However, I also worked blue collar jobs for many years, most of my young adulthood. And now, of course, things have come full circle, as I get to rise at 6AM to do digital sharecropping (kidding! Partly). However, I think you nail it with that "sense of the future." To this day, I think/imagine/plan/even sometimes execute ways to make my working life different and more interesting. And although this has something to do with me as a person, it has much more to do with my background, with the sense of possibilities, of agency, that my background gives me. Unearned privilege....

And I think that Cleaver nails it also; I think it's the SMBIVA guys who call these guys "merit babies," though if you read Yglesias or Klein or any of 'em carefully, you see there's very little there besides the credentialing and the connections.