Cover image for The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy By Jeremy Engels

The Politics of Resentment

A Genealogy

Jeremy Engels


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The Politics of Resentment

A Genealogy

Jeremy Engels

“What is the relationship between rhetoric and violence? Jeremy Engels addresses that question in the aftermath of the 2011 shooting spree that seriously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed several others. Drawing on wide-ranging scholarship in political theory and American public discourse, he argues that political elites hijack justified popular resentment against oppressive social systems and redirect it against powerless individuals, thereby creating the potential for violence. Provocative in its understanding of democracy, compelling in its case studies of Richard Nixon and Sarah Palin, and challenging in its call for reinvigorated rhetorical criticism, this is a book that makes us think.”


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In the days and weeks following the tragic 2011 shooting of nineteen Arizonans, including congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, there were a number of public discussions about the role that rhetoric might have played in this horrific event. In question was the use of violent and hateful rhetoric that has come to dominate American political discourse on television, on the radio, and at the podium. A number of more recent school shootings have given this debate a renewed sense of urgency, as have the continued use of violent metaphors in public address and the dishonorable state of America’s partisan gridlock. This conversation, unfortunately, has been complicated by a collective cultural numbness to violence. But that does not mean that fruitful conversations should not continue. In The Politics of Resentment, Jeremy Engels picks up this thread, examining the costs of violent political rhetoric for our society and the future of democracy.

The Politics of Resentment traces the rise of especially violent rhetoric in American public discourse by investigating key events in American history. Engels analyzes how resentful rhetoric has long been used by public figures in order to achieve political ends. He goes on to show how a more devastating form of resentment started in the 1960s, dividing Americans on issues of structural inequalities and foreign policy. He discusses, for example, the rhetorical and political contexts that have made the mobilization of groups such as Nixon’s “silent majority” and the present Tea Party possible. Now, in an age of recession and sequestration, many Americans believe that they have been given a raw deal and experience feelings of injustice in reaction to events beyond individual control. With The Politics of Resentment, Engels wants to make these feelings of victimhood politically productive by challenging the toxic rhetoric that takes us there, by defusing it, and by enabling citizens to have the kinds of conversations we need to have in order to fight for life, liberty, and equality.

“What is the relationship between rhetoric and violence? Jeremy Engels addresses that question in the aftermath of the 2011 shooting spree that seriously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed several others. Drawing on wide-ranging scholarship in political theory and American public discourse, he argues that political elites hijack justified popular resentment against oppressive social systems and redirect it against powerless individuals, thereby creating the potential for violence. Provocative in its understanding of democracy, compelling in its case studies of Richard Nixon and Sarah Palin, and challenging in its call for reinvigorated rhetorical criticism, this is a book that makes us think.”
“There may be no more pressing problem in contemporary U.S. political culture than a flourishing politics of resentment, which divides citizens, stalls policy, and excuses injustice. In The Politics of Resentment, Jeremy Engels helps readers understand how resentment has arisen as a political force and how scholars and citizens may respond. Toward these ends, The Politics of Resentment deftly weaves together history, criticism, and theory. Engels argues eloquently that we cannot ‘ban resentment from the public sphere,’ but he suggests ways to productively turn resentment toward disclosing structural violence, thereby helping achieve justice and promote a public good.”
“Recommended for scholars of public address and rhetorical theory alike, The Politics of Resentment will soon be required reading for courses on deliberative democracy—and deservedly so. With proper exposure, this book may well contribute to the growth of a more peaceful, less resentful nation.”
“Engels continues his studies into the historical use of rhetoric with a volume summarizing what he considers the particularly nefarious use of rhetoric by political and economic elites in the United States since the Nixon years of the 1960s, to achieve unity in a recalcitrant and potentially revolutionary democracy, no longer in the traditional way through inspiring fear and patriotism by creating the spectre of a hostile and unreasonable outside enemy, but precisely the reverse, abandoning the classic goal of preserving internal unity by identifying an internal enemy.”

Jeremy Engels is Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at The Pennsylvania State University.

Essay i

Essay ii Essay iii


Acknowledgments / vii Introduction:DemocracyandResentment / 1

Reimagining the People: From Duas

Civitates to E Pluribus Unum to E Unibus Duo / 25

The Rise of the Politics of Resentment / 70 The Rhetoric of Violence / 103

Conclusion: Resentment Ad Hominem

and Ad Ratio: A Plea for Rhetorical Criticism / 144

Notes / 163 Bibliography / 183 Index / 199


Democracy and Resentment

On January 7, 2011, Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat, sent an e-mail to a friend in Kentucky, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican. Grayson had recently been offered the prestigious position of director of Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and, in a rare gesture that crossed partisan lines, Gif- fords reached out to congratulate him. “After you get settled,” she wrote, “I would love to talk about what we can do to promote centrism and moderation. I am one of only 12 Dems left in a GOP district (the only woman) and think that we need to figure out how to tone our rhetoric and partisanship down.”1 Giffords’s plea for more civil rhetoric was interrupted the very next day at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson; in the parking lot of local mall, a vigilante shot her in the head. Nineteen people were wounded. Giffords survived. Six others died.

Tragedytendstodefypreciselywhatitdemands—explanation. Who is the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, and why did he do it? Many accounts circulated in the days and weeks following the shooting. Some blamed Arizona’s lax gun laws. Others the lack of funding devoted to treating the mentally ill. When the local sheriff for Pima County, Arizona, Clarence Dupnik, stepped up to a podium on January 8, 2011, to offer a statement on the shooting, he cited these factors. He then took the conversation in a different,

2 The Politics of Resentment

surprising, and for some, an inflammatory direction by blaming political discourse—the very thing Giffords herself had hoped to moderate. This was not, after all, a random shooting; it was a tar- geted attack on an elected political official. The massacre was, according to Dupnik, a consequence of the resentful, hateful, antigovernment tirades typical of contemporary political rhetoric. For Dupnik, the angry, polarizing, take-no-prisoners, violent talk of the Republican Right—its “vitriolic rhetoric”—was the primary cause of the shooting. Americans searching for an explanation for Loughner’s act needed to look no further than talk radio, Fox News, campaign ads decorated with gun sights, and warlike speeches. “To try to inflame the public on a daily basis, twenty- four hours a day, seven days a week, has an impact on people, especiallywhoareunbalancedpersonalitiestobeginwith,”Dupnik opined. “It’s time that this country take a little introspective look at the crap that comes out on radio and TV.”2

When Sheriff Dupnik cited “vitriolic rhetoric” as a factor in the shooting, he sparked a national debate about the metaphors, images (e.g., crosshairs), slogans, and clichés that comprise Ameri- can political discourse. In the days and weeks following the Tucson shooting, Americans engaged in a number of public discussions that asked: could violent rhetoric have contributed to what hap- pened on that horrific Saturday morning? This question was given a new urgency in the post-Tucson period by a plague of school shootings, by the widespread use of violent metaphors in our public address, and by the anger, hatred, and general nastiness of political discussioninourageofpartisangridlock.Weliveinresentfultimes, and it shows in how we talk.

This discussion about the relationship between violence and rhetoric has been complicated by our collective cultural numbness to the violence that fills our various screens. Americans reacted to the Tucson shooting much as they reacted to the mass murder at Virginia Tech in April 2007, to the shooting at Fort Hood in November 2009, to a man opening fire at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, in August 2012, to the

massacre of twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, to the bombing at the Bos- ton Marathon in April 2013, and to the shooting spree at the Uni- versity of California, Santa Barbara, in May 2014—we were moved to tears, sure, but we quickly moved on and got back down to it. We have become so used to being moved by the flood of terrible, tragic events that we have adapted by becoming numb to graphic stimuli. This is the “dialectic of postmodern life”—we are moved, and we move on.3

Moving on, and on, and on, ad infinitum; this is the cultural ethos of our time, designed for a busy and mobile people con- stantly on the go. Speed is adaptive, but rarely helpful for making wise decisions. There is plenty of evidence that speed kills; speed also makes it difficult to understand killing. Speed encourages us to attune to violence at only a surface-level depth. Citizens moving quickly stop registering the everyday forces that produce and pro- mote violence, and as such we do not get at the marrow of the problem. I believe, therefore, that we should counter the dialectic of postmodern life with a counter-ethos of rhetorical criticism that encourages citizens to look more critically at the operation of the rhetorical forces that shape our world, that manipulate our poten- tials and vulnerabilities, and that constrain our possibilities for collective action.

In this book I do not answer the question of Loughner’s motives. I do not believe that we will ever know why he did it, outside of his own admission (and even then his words would be influenced by the intervening years and all that he has heard). A number of publications, including Time magazine—with its Janu- ary 24, 2011, cover—spoke to the enduring unknowns about the tragedy. Beneath the words “Guns. Speech. Madness,” a grainy black-and-white mug shot of the shooter dominated the page, his slight smile infinitely suggestive of dark motives. Superimposed above Loughner’s shaved head was a brain-shaped maze terminat- ing in a big red question mark. This cover depicted the ultimate incomprehensibility of the gunman, and I agree that Loughner’s

Introduction 3

4 The Politics of Resentment

mind is unknowable outside of his own words. I do not agree that knowing his mind is the most important thing, or that the ques- tion of motive is the most important question for us to ask in the aftermath of Tucson. The optimal question for me is about force: what forces are at work in our society that enabled this action and produced such a clearly damaged subject? Here I think that Sheriff Dupnik was on to something: one of the most powerful forces working to produce violence in our culture is political rhetoric.

Rather than moving on so quickly after tragedy, we should continue, expand, and enrich our fruitful cultural conversations about political rhetoric. To confront, challenge, and transcend violent speech must be one of our central political goals today. To do this, however, we must first understand the emotions that give rise to such talk and the feelings that this talk is intended to excite. This includes resentment, long recognized by philosophers, politi- cal theorists, and rhetorical scholars to be among the most potent of all emotions associated with democracy. I believe that much of the resentment felt today is the product of widespread feelings of powerlessness in the populace, along with the general sentiment that citizens are victims to forces and changes beyond their con- trol. In turn, much of the violent political discourse we are inun- dated with today is the direct product of this civic resentment.

To govern the masses, Aristotle taught in his Rhetoric, politicians must cultivate in the populace the right feelings, at the right times, in the right proportions—speaking thunder in the face of danger, a lullaby when the people are angry, a psalm in times of trouble. Aristotle had much to say about resentment. He fretted that this emotion was unstable, unpredictable, and ultimately ungovern- able; in fact, resentment was the only civic emotion he treated as unqualifiedly negative.4 The philosophers of the classical period conceptualized resentment as a bitter, eruptive, undignified force that had to be contained. This emotion was especially dangerous, they suggested, because it was characteristic of the democratic poor.5 In his speech “Antidosis,” written in the fourth century bce, Isocrates observed that the ancient Greek citizenry was phila-

pekhthēmōn, “fond of hating”—the people were full of “resent- ment” toward the wealthy as a political class.6 Due to Athenians’ unearned resentment toward their betters, Isocrates fretted that he and other affluent men had to defend themselves against the charge of being wealthy as though that were a crime.7

Isocrates’s neologism philapekhthēmōn connotes an ongoing practice of resentment toward the rich in Athens. Democratic resentment represented the potential for hostility between the poor and the rich to boil over; it was also the threat of conflict that kept the Athenian elite from using its outsized influence against the citizenry and contrary to the public good. Writing at the moment when philosophy, rhetoric, and democracy were born in the West, Isocrates described resentment as an emotion closely associated with democratic politics. I call our attention to Aris- totle and Isocrates from the outset because they encourage us to contemplate the relationship between democracy, rhetoric, and resentment. The explosion of resentment in contemporary politics is not new. What is new is how resentment is framed in public discourse. Opportunistic political leaders have developed rheto- rics that allow resentment to be put to troubling uses in democratic politics. It is my goal in this book to describe these rhetorical innovations. My tale is one of reversal and, ultimately, betrayal. I offer this genealogy because resentment is an emotion commonly leveraged today to divide citizens into hostile camps, to turn indi- vidual against individual and neighbor against neighbor, to negate the possibility for deliberation between opponents, and to encour- age violence. If we want to better understand why contemporary American political rhetoric is so violent, we need look no further than the politics of resentment.

Like our Greek forebears, Americans continue to feel resent- ment; the citizenry remains fond of hatred. But something is differ- ent today. Resentment once made the wealthy elite tremble. Now, politicians embrace resentment, making it central to how they govern. These leaders encourage citizens to direct our resentment not at an economic system that benefits the rich and powerful at

Introduction 5

6 The Politics of Resentment

the expense of the poor and numerous, but instead at our civic equals. The politics of resentment turns citizens against one another, making interpersonal violence seem justifiable and at times righ- teous. Yet this rhetoric never provides the salvation it promises. It frustrates citizens’ desires while upholding the very structures that inflame civic resentment in the first place.

My aim in this book is to explain how resentment went from the bane of political elites to their primary rhetorical instrument for managing democracy and restraining the power of the demos. My goal, in short, is to recount how democratic resentment has been tamed. I will do this by tracking several key transitions in the relationship between democracy and resentment from the classi- cal period to the contemporary moment. Along the way, I will chronicle the primary rhetorical means that political and corpo- rate elites in the United States have developed for directing the emotions of the citizenry. I will describe how and under what cir- cumstances resentment became central to governance during the twentieth century. I will illustrate the master terms in the vocabu- lary of resentment that Americans have learned to speak. Finally, I will elucidate how the politics of resentment has been put in the service of an economic philosophy (postmodern financial capital- ism, or as it is more generally known, “neoliberalism”) that is dev- astating in its consequences for most Americans. At every turn, I take the time to explain why the ambitions of citizens in the United States are constantly frustrated. The politics of resentment encourages us to shout and rage and vent and shoot, but in the end it takes the teeth out of democracy by fracturing the demos. In recent decades, the politics of resentment has been employed to uphold elite, corporate rule over the nation by keeping citizens angry, resentful, frustrated, and acquiescent. The politics of resent- ment might feel like resistance to power, but its result is the reifica- tion of power relations that are harmful to citizens.

Before describing the argument of this book in more detail, let me first say a word or two about how I understand democracy, and then a few more words about how I understand rhetoric. Having

done this, I will then describe the conceptual foundations and chronological arc of The Politics of Resentment.

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