The coins on our counter and in our pockets carry the slogan “Out of Many, One.” But that is not a common theme in our society nowadays. Instead, writes Jeremy Engels in The Politics of Resentment (Penn State Press, 2015), the operative slogan is “Out of One, Two.”
Democracy plays out differently in various times and places. It means, however, that the populace can routinely hold the powerful in check. Democracy is an alternative to authoritarianism, oligarchy, dictatorship, totalitarianism or aristocracy. James Madison (1758-1831) and other founders of our country wanted a democracy in which citizens had power, but not in free-wheeling anarchistic style. Madison promoted the wide interplay of factions. Each faction would advance its agenda. Each group had to play on a large political field and thus could not succeed without the backing of other groups that shared some part of the original agenda. In forming a coalition the group had to temper its agenda.
In our society, Engels details, Madison’s factions (e pluribus unum) are reduced to two (e unibus duo). It is us against those whom we resent. The silent majority resents the loudmouthed pleaders. Those with hard-working family values resent immigrants who supposedly take away jobs. Those who in theory exhibit a Christian lifestyle resent Muslims who supposedly want to take over.
Meanwhile, the powerful elites become more powerful because the mechanisms for democratic accountability are neglected. The grievances of the populace are “channeled at the wrong targets,” says Engels. Resentful rhetoric, as heard on some radio shows and at campaign rallies, is counter-productive. The audience might momentarily feel charged-up; ready to counter their cultural opposites. As Engels convincingly shows, however, the resentment “does not hasten justice.” It actually perpetuates suffering because it locks the aggrieved group into victim status. Instead of honing the political skills that lead to change, resentful groups wallow in blaming, name-calling and pointless behavior.
The rhetoric of resentment contains lots of violent metaphors that eventually have an effect on conduct. Engels clearly states that no direct line exists between, for example, a candidate or radio host who plays to resentment and, for example, a crazed shooter in a school building. Violent language does though create a culture of fear, a culture with weak restraints.
One of Engel’s five chapters is largely given to Sarah Palin, who recently endorsed Donald Trump for president. She obviously does not favor acts of violence. But a close reading of her talks reveals violent terms aplenty. She paints herself and her followers as victims. To Palin, “the other” is not a legitimate political opponent, but a hated evil enemy.
In recent years some people (lay people, some parish staff, a few bishops) have brought the nastiness of the culture wars (a metaphor) inside the church. They don’t let faith enlighten public life; they use the resentments of public life to define our faith. They may think our times require a holy crusade (metaphorically). Their posture, however, certainly achieves the opposite of what they desire. In fact, their ideological notion of religion is dangerous. Their backwards approach is similar to that of radical Muslims who use an ideology to interpret God’s revelation.
The opposite of resentment is gratitude; both an individual attitude of gratitude and a public politics of thanksgiving. To be continued…
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free print newsletter on faith and work.