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“Is There No Virtue Among Us?”

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Is There No Virtue Among Us?” Democracy in an Age of Rage and Resentment
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Democracy in an Age of Rage and Resentment


The West’s souring mood is about the psychology of dashed expectations rather than the decline in material comforts.


—Edward Luce


The most obvious explanation for American political life since the end of the Cold War is that we have become an unserious country populated by an unserious people.


—Jonathan V. Last


Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.


—James Madison



It is disturbing enough to realize that our neighbors might be good people but bad citizens. But what happens if the citizens of a democratic nation, whatever their civic habits, are no longer virtuous enough as a people to sustain their own institutions? Good people can, from time to time, be bad citizens. Nations, like families, can persevere through periods of anger and estrangement. Liberal democracy, however, cannot long survive among an unvirtuous people. The collapse of virtue, public and private, leads not only to bad citizenship, but also to the eventual impossibility of producing good citizens at all.


Even more than questions about what makes a good or bad citizen, questions about virtue seem intrusive and judgmental. Democracies, we might think, are not based on virtue, but on everyone behaving moderately well while minding their own business. To ruminate on who is a virtuous person is a matter for ancient philosophers; to investigate the feelings or beliefs of other citizens is the road taken by the eternal social and political busybody. As Louis Brandeis famously wrote in 1928, “the right to be let alone” is “the most comprehensive of the rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” Just as liberal democracies long ago rejected literacy tests and poll taxes for the universal franchise, they cannot today institute some sort of moral test at the entrance to the voting booth. In a tolerant, secular democracy, what’s in our hearts when we show up to vote is between us and our conscience.


And yet, as much as Americans may prefer to ignore this part of their national history, the Founders of the American republic understood the existential link between virtue and democracy. They knew that to believe in some magical difference between how we live our lives as individuals and how we conduct ourselves as citizens in a community was only a reassuring fantasy. “Public virtue,” John Adams wrote in early 1776, “cannot exist in a nation without private virtue, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.” A year earlier, his cousin Sam (in a letter sneering about the well-known adultery of a doctor who turned to the British during the Revolutionary War) wrote, in his characteristically blunt way: “There is seldom an instance of a man guilty of betraying his country, who had not before lost the feeling of moral obligations in his private connections.”1


More important, the Founders understood that institutional design could not overcome the worst impulses of human nature if human beings themselves decided to give in to those base instincts. “I go on this great republican principle,” James Madison said at the Virginia convention to ratify the Constitution in 1788,


that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.2


The Founders knew that ballot boxes and legislatures and courtrooms—all of which exist today in even the most repressive states—could not sustain a democratic nation without some understanding among the public of duty, tolerance, sacrifice, cooperation, compromise, and the inherent truth of individual rights.


Nor were the American Founders under any illusions about human nature, including their own. It was Madison, after all, who said that “if men were angels,” government itself would not be necessary. The Founders, whatever their many virtues, also fired scalding insults at each other, passed intemperate laws, and in general acted like flawed and sometimes terrible human beings. They counted among their number true geniuses and heroes, but their ranks were also rife with egomaniacs and opportunists. More damning, they left the tumor of slavery intact next to the infant heart of their new republic and set the stage for the greatest bloodletting in American history.


If we can forgive the people of the eighteenth century who founded a democracy, we need not be overly demanding about the failings of human nature two hundred years later. Even in the most admirable democracies, there will be cynical and disengaged citizens. Some will always harbor irrational hatreds and low motives. Others will see government only as a means for purely selfish and transactional gains. At every public meeting of some kind in an open and free society, the law of averages, if nothing else, will guarantee that there are going to be truly terrible people in the crowd, including the usual crank who shows up to excoriate everyone else.


But when we’re all that local crank—when enough of us are continually angry, entitled, and conspiracy-addled—civic life becomes impossible. The public square empties out. Paranoia and fear become the dominant emotions. In such a world, citizens end up retreating to castles surrounded by moats filled with bizarre rationalizations and parapets loaded with boiling hostility, lowering the drawbridge only long enough to engage in necessary trade for supplies.


Most people do not need to be exemplary human beings or deep political thinkers in order to be good citizens. (And, of course, there are many good citizens who pay attention to the news, cast unremarkable votes for mainstream candidates, and diligently pay their taxes while also being execrable people.) But citizens at least have to believe in notions of virtue and civic responsibility and act on them with some regularity, even if they cannot consistently practice them. A “virtuous” people cannot be virtuous only once or twice every two to four years and still expect their own republic to function without them the rest of the time.


Liberal democracies are nurtured by infrequent events like voting but even more so by small but important habits of mind that combine self-interest with civic conviction, a commitment to participation and cooperation that is unrelated to any specific ideology or platform. This civic sensibility, reinforced by time and repetition, allows us to overcome our individual flaws and construct a durable edifice of institutions, laws, and norms that protects our rights and freedoms. In the modern democracies, however, that edifice is now being washed away by the citizens themselves, as civic virtue drowns in narcissism, anger, and resentment. Bad citizenship is a passing malady, and it can remedied by any number of means. But an unvirtuous people is a fundamental and potentially fatal threat to a liberal democracy.



The most important ingredient in the decline of modern democracy is narcissism, the true pandemic that is at the root of almost all of democracy’s problems. Narcissism, the unhealthy preoccupation with the self to the exclusion of all else—and especially to the exclusion of other human beings—tempts us away from thinking about the needs of other people and to see them only as objects in relation to our own happiness. Its traveling companion is entitlement, the selfish and self-absorbed conviction that our own importance merits constant reward. Narcissism undermines virtue of every kind, but it is particularly deadly to the social trust that allows democracy to endure in hard times. By definition, a democracy is a community. By definition, a narcissist is incapable of holding or granting membership in a community.


How we got here is an important question, but no matter which roads we traveled, Americans, along with a fair number of citizens elsewhere in the developed world, have arrived at the dead end of a stunningly narcissistic and entitled society. This didn’t all happen overnight, and more than a few alert social critics saw it coming. Among the most influential was Christopher Lasch, who in a 1979 book titled The Culture of Narcissism raged against the arrival of the “new narcissist,” a hedonist questing for personal fulfillment while fending off the onset of adulthood and its responsibilities. Lasch painted a portrait of the average late-century American as an overgrown child who “extols cooperation and teamwork” while “harboring deeply antisocial impulses,” who “praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself,” whose “cravings have no limits,” and whose constant demands for immediate gratification create a “state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.”3


Lasch, who refused narrow identification with the left or the right, was not the most appealing critic. Some of his warnings turned out to be the product of blind spots, or just plain wrong. (As the writer E. J. Dionne later noted, Lasch believed that the “ideology of white supremacy no longer appears to serve any important social function,” a baffling dismissal even in its time.4) Lasch’s later work seems to be that of an academic so fed up with the attitudes of his colleagues and other cultural elites that he became, by irascible reaction, a populist. By the time he wrote The Revolt of the Elites, published shortly after his death in 1996, he was far more forgiving of the masses, and more prone to excoriate the upper classes, even to the point of excusing the same kind of civic indolence among average citizens that he might have deplored just a few decades earlier.


Still, at the end of the 1970s, Lasch could see the damage already done. In a passage that seems to predict the internet and the continual media cycle, he warned that “historical currents have converged in our time to produce not merely in artists but in ordinary men and women an escalating cycle of self-consciousness—a sense of the self as a performer under the constant scrutiny of friends and strangers.” In such a culture, plodding achievement, cooperation with others, and deferred gratification are pointless. When citizens are always performing for each other, they expect accolades and instant psychic rewards, even if they have not earned them, and they become angry and resentful if they do not get them.


Some of this, perhaps, was Lasch’s response to the cheap exhibitionism, oily decadence, and overall cultural stagnation of the disco era. (And let me add, for the benefit of younger readers, that compared to the rest of the 1970s, disco was one of the least bad parts of that decade.) David Frum has described the decade as “strange, feverish years,” a time of “unease and despair, punctuated by disaster,” while the liberal Columbia University professor Mark Lilla would later recall how difficult it is “to convey to anyone who wasn’t alive and politically aware at the time what a dreary place America seemed in the late 1970s, how lacking in direction and confidence.”5 The post–World War II glow among an older generation was gone, and the energy of their children in the mid-1960s had exhausted itself within a decade. Self-examination became the new hobby and self-actualization the new goal.


In later years, America managed to recover as a military and economic great power. American social and civic culture did not. Thirty years after Lasch launched his broadside, the psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell published The Narcissism Epidemic, a scathing study that laid out in detail the degree to which narcissism and entitlement had become woven into American life. Twenge and Campbell traced the evolution of American society from the late 1960s into the twenty-first century in a complicated tale of the synergy between affluence, entertainment, education, and a persistent youth culture marketed toward the natural human fear of aging.


These economic and cultural developments produced an ongoing problem Twenge and Campbell described as “the odd perpetual adolescence of many American adults.”


[W]e imagine narcissism in society resting on a four-legged stool. One leg is developmental, including permissive parenting and self-esteem focused education. The second leg is the media culture of shallow celebrity. The third is the Internet: Despite its many benefits, the Web serves as a conduit for individual narcissism. Finally, easy credit makes narcissistic dreams into reality. The narcissistic inflation of the self was the cultural twin of the inflation of credit. They are both bubbles, but the credit bubble popped first.6


This is a description of American society that will anger many readers, who may see a “blame the victim” accusation underneath reproaches about parenting and spending habits. But the growth of narcissism in the United States and other developed nations was not some unavoidable accident. From Lasch’s warning in the 1970s, to the political scientist Robert Putnam’s landmark work in the 1990s about “bowling alone” (the general tendency of Americans to do things individually that they once did in groups), to multiple cross-national studies of college students done over the past few decades, the growth of social isolation and the concurrent rise of narcissism should not have been a surprise.7 The rise in narcissism means increasing esteem for ourselves while our connections to others are decreasing, a terrible confluence of loving oneself more while loving one’s neighbor less.


Perhaps the most obvious example of the effect of narcissism on political life has been that Americans have become vastly more embracing of narcissistic public figures, especially at the national level. Previous traditions of stoicism in politics were always a mixed blessing, a way of hiding the medical and moral frailties of national leaders from Franklin Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy to Richard Nixon. But the idea that every candidate for national office had to be somehow authentic or relatable on a personal level became a disturbing trend in American politics in the wake of the Cold War. The writer Joan Didion captured this new sensibility in 1992 when she noticed that candidate Bill Clinton spoke about difficulties in his childhood regularly “and rather distressingly, in connection with questions raised about his adulthood.”


He frequently referred to “my pain,” and also to “my passion” or “my obsession,” as in “it would be part of my obsession as president.” He often spoke, at low points in his primary campaign, of those who remained less than enthusiastic about allowing him to realize his passion or obsession as “folks who don’t know me,” and about his need to “get the people outside Arkansas to know me like people here do.”8


This was the Clinton campaign’s attempt, as Didion wrote, to create a “dramatically more interesting character than candidate, a personality so tightly organized around its own fractures that its most profound mode often appeared to be self-pity.” Until the 1990s, this was not a quality voters normally found attractive in their prospective commander in chief.


But Bill Clinton was merely a warning of things to come. There is no way to talk about the increase in narcissism in American public life without talking about the rise of Donald Trump and the cult of personality that formed around him during his time in office and continued to surround him even in defeat. Trump has been widely described by medical professionals, colleagues who knew him, and his own niece—herself a clinical psychologist—as a narcissist.9 But even in a crowded field of narcissistic celebrities, Trump stood out in 2016 not just for his self-love but also for the slashing hostility he deployed against anyone who threatened his ego. Those who had watched Trump for decades as a tabloid celebrity knew that his public persona was based on outlandish and overblown claims, shameless lying, and merciless attacks on anyone, including his own family, who got in his way. The surprise was the degree to which millions of Americans embraced this kind of behavior and rewarded it.


Political candidates are always, to some extent, celebrities, especially since television became an indispensable part of political campaigns. The days when a William McKinley could run for president by sitting on his porch are long gone, not only in the United States, but in every nation that has electricity. But there was also a time, not so long ago, when it was unthinkable that someone as dysfunctional as Donald Trump could survive in modern American politics. Even the most self-centered American politicians were expected to rationalize their electoral bid as a call to public service. Glamorous candidates who came from privilege or previous fame, such as JFK or Ronald Reagan, had to demonstrate a common touch, often by mastering the art of the self-deprecating quip. Trump challenged this tradition by extolling himself in flat, self-aggrandizing terms that would have washed previous candidates from American public life: “I alone can fix it.” “I am the elite.” “They’re jealous of me.”


Whatever Trump’s personal shortcomings, what was most disturbing from the perspective of democratic stability was how many Americans seemed to identify with him. Ordinary voters sat through hours of Trump’s alternating litanies of narcissistic grievance and self-adulation and then said of a man who, by his wealth and lifestyle is unlike almost any other American, “He’s like one of us.”10 As the scholar Eliot Cohen wrote, the most disturbing possibility is not that these voters were hoodwinked, but that they were right, and that they were, in fact, much like Trump. “American culture,” he wrote in early 2016, is “nastier, more nihilistic, and far less inhibited than ever before. It breeds alternating bouts of cynicism and hysteria, and now it has given us Trump.” This, Cohen, argued, was a symptom of cultural and moral rot, and whatever Trump’s personal pathologies, his rise was “only one among many signs that something has gone profoundly amiss in our popular culture.”11


Not everyone who voted for Trump was a narcissist and not everyone who voted against him was Mother Teresa, and American liberals have their own brand of narcissistic dysfunction and celebrity worship. The adulation of former president Barack Obama, for example, at times became indistinguishable from a personality cult, such as when Newsweek ran a cover story referring to Obama’s second term as “The Second Coming.” This might have been easy to dismiss as a poor editorial choice, except that four years earlier, Newsweek’s editor, Evan Thomas, greeted Obama’s first election by saying on MSNBC, “I mean in a way, Obama’s standing above the country, above the world, he’s sort of God.”12


Another less serious but unsettling example was the self-help guru Marianne Williamson ending up onstage during the Democratic Party’s 2020 primary debates, a spectacle possible only because Williamson, a wildly popular author before her presidential run, managed to clear the initial low polling bar for inclusion. Williamson made it through two rounds of debates, and her campaign outlasted some of the party veterans, despite her participation devolving into airy pronouncements about “harnessing love for political purposes.” In the end, Democrats nominated an establishment figure in Joe Biden, but even to see Williamson on the stage was a tableau from a new American political landscape.


If narcissism were confined to small pockets of self-absorbed citizens or limited to a particular demographic or socioeconomic background, the threat to democracy would be more easily contained by the numerical realities of voting. Narcissism, however, is spreading in the United States and abroad. Twenge and Campbell—in language now even more uncomfortable after the arrival of the coronavirus—wondered whether the epidemic of narcissism in the United States could become a global pandemic.


We already know that both individual Americans and our shared culture are becoming more narcissistic over time. Thus a host is in place. And narcissism has a means of transmission through the media and the Internet. The narcissistic behavior that brings attention to one person can, through the magic of the Internet, be spread instantly around the globe. Other cultures are increasingly becoming infected with narcissism, becoming hosts for the fast-moving virus of egotism, materialism, celebrity worship, entitlement, and self-centeredness. As epidemiologists can tell you, a virus that spreads from many people and many points can quickly overtake an entire population.


Using a disease model and comparing the outbreak of narcissism to the increase in obesity from poor eating habits, the authors warned that “it is much easier to spread narcissism than fast-food restaurants.”13 Much like junk food, narcissism is destroying our communal health.



Anger is bad for you. We know this from medical science. While it sometimes provides a release of tension, long periods of anger damage your heart, marinate you in stress hormones, raise your blood pressure, and harm your relationships. But anger also feels good—sometimes, really good. Rage is liberating, empowering. This is a part of our makeup as human beings and central to our myths of good and evil. “Let the hate flow through you,” the evil Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars saga cackles as he tries to turn the young Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side. “Your hate has made you powerful.”


Hate is power, but it is also poison to liberal democracies. And yet liberal democratic societies are immersed in it, hijacked by a diffuse and nihilistic rage that seems to exist for its own sake. A 2019 poll found that two-thirds of Americans are “angry about the way things are going in the country,” over 60 percent are angrier over current events than they were five years before, and 58 percent say that their friends and family are angrier too. At 74 percent, Democrats were the angriest of all—an understandable reaction from a party mostly out of power until the congressional elections of 2018. But over half of Republicans reported feeling angry as well, with majorities of both Democrats and Republicans feeling “like a stranger in my own country.”14


This is not a phenomenon unique to the United States. In 2019, the Gallup organization found that over a fifth of respondents across 142 countries said they felt angry, a slight increase from 2017 and a new record since the first such survey was conducted in 2006.15 Armenia and Iraq were at the head of the pack with the angriest populations, while Chad and Mozambique led in perceptions of worry and stress. Still, the Americans made a strong showing. “Even as their economy roared,” Gallup pollsters noted in 2018,


more Americans were stressed, angry and worried last year than they have been at most points during the past decade. Asked about their feelings the previous day, the majority of Americans (55%) in 2018 said they had experienced stress during a lot of the day, nearly half (45%) said they felt worried a lot and more than one in five (22%) said they felt anger a lot.16


Even if we consider that Americans were about as angry as everyone else in the world, this is a remarkable finding in itself, considering that people in most other countries in the world have more reasons to be angry than most Americans. But Americans were also 6 percent more likely than people in other nations to express worry, and a whopping 20 percent more likely to report stress, a number that puts the United States on the same level as Greece, Iran, and Uganda—and three points of ahead of Venezuela, a country that is both a political and economic disaster.


Cross-cultural comparisons of emotion are always tricky, but there is almost a ridiculousness to this level of stress and anger in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. These emotions are especially challenging for a democratic government when citizens report that they are miserable while at the same time explaining that they are also quite happy, a finding that complicates locating actual solutions to these general anxieties. In early 2020, for example, Gallup found that “nine in 10 Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in their personal life, a new high in Gallup’s four-decade trend,” and topping the previous high of 88 percent recorded in 2003, five years before the Great Recession.17 Two-thirds, in fact, are very satisfied with their lives. Of course, being rich helps; the very happiest Americans are those who make over $100,000 a year. But even among the least-affluent respondents—those who make under $40,000 a year—80 percent are satisfied with their lives, and over half are very satisfied. Wealthy, married Republicans report being the happiest of all, while “lower-income Americans, Democrats and those who are unmarried report more tepid satisfaction,” but the bottom line, according to Gallup, is that the “vast majority of Americans in all major demographic and political subgroups are content with the way their lives are going.”


How can people be happy and furious at the same time? One explanation is that the people who are happy and the people who are furious are not the same people. But polling—and voting behavior—suggests that this is not true. Social anger and personal satisfaction seem to coexist side by side in multiple groups of voters, who report great happiness while voting for some of the angriest populist candidates.


A better explanation is that human beings are bad at assessing risk, at judging the state of the economy, or at estimating their own welfare relative to others, and always have been. Citizens tend to judge the state of the world by who they think is running it at any given moment. At the 2016 Republican convention, for example, the journalist Michael Grunwald noted that the “delegates all seem to agree the Obama economy is a ghastly mess. Except for the economy wherever they happen to live.”18 This could have been written about almost any American political gathering over the past half century; as a 2010 Pew study noted, Democrats and Republicans reversed positions on the state of the economy after the Great Recession—that is, after Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s election—with Republicans far more pessimistic and Democrats far more upbeat, even though Democrats had lower incomes, less wealth, and suffered more job losses during the recession.19 Likewise, American citizens over the years regularly report being satisfied with the quality of life in their communities while thinking the country is on the wrong track.


At this point you may be congratulating me for discovering something called “ordinary human emotions.” And yet there is something wrong when an affluent democracy like the United States has a constant high voltage of anger running through its political veins regardless of actual local or national conditions. Indeed, “anger” might not be a big enough word to capture the sourness of American civic life. In 2019, the scholar Arthur Brooks worried that Americans had blown past mere “incivility” or “intolerance” only to arrive at “something far worse: contempt, which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but also for other people.”20 Many of us are no longer angry about any particular condition of our lives, or about any particular policy with which we disagree. We are now a more foul-tempered version of Banfield’s villagers, immersed not only in amoral and transactional politics, but gripped as well by the contemptuous dismissal of everyone who is not part of our family or trusted circle.


I am not immune to this feeling. A few years ago, I gave a lecture on the problem of expertise and democracy at a prestigious university in a beautiful but geographically remote region, and at dinner with the faculty afterward, we began to talk about the politics of America’s rural areas and small towns. Despite the fact that I personally came from a relatively small city and working-class roots, I was fed up, I said, with the recalcitrance of a minority of Americans whose electoral behavior seemed utterly hostile to everything from civil rights to basic science. Some of the academics at the table nodded along, but one of the professors who did not share my views eyed me for a moment and said, “Your contempt for the voters is palpable.”


I was taken aback. I noted that his contempt for urban and more liberal voters was just as evident—because it was—and after more discussion about what we deplored among which groups of voters, we moved on. But my colleague was right. I not only felt disconnected from voters with whom I disagreed, but I had given up on them and viewed them, if not with contempt, with disdain. (For his part, my colleague was convinced that his deeply hostile view of liberal voters was rooted in moral righteousness about issues like abortion and free speech and therefore completely reasonable.) I had to think seriously about my own failings because his comment struck a chord that I could not deny. I still think about it.


There are always reasons in a democracy to be dissatisfied, angry, or even enraged. Sometimes, we are fed up when local authorities are squandering tax payments while uncollected garbage sits on the streets. More severe problems, from the mismanagement of the economy to the bungling of a military conflict, can and should produce a tidal wave at the ballot box. And some wounds—such as the delayed promises of equality to women and minorities—will call justifiably enraged citizens into the streets to demand actions from recalcitrant authorities who have been in power too comfortably and too long.


But anger should not be the default condition of a democratic electorate. In our current political era, especially since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent rise of a powerful and wealthy America, drama and anger have become the normal state of affairs, and these emotions have supplanted deliberation and compromise. They leave no room for reasoned debate about policy, which is complicated and boring. As Lilla has put it: “Romantics chafe at this undramatic conception of politics. They prefer to think of it as a zero-sum confrontation—the People against Power, or Civilization against the Mob. And it’s not hard to see why. What could be more stirring . . . ? And what could be more dreary than the history of parties and public administration and treaties?”21


Instead, citizens now elevate political differences to existential struggles, because to do so makes for a more interesting and all-consuming confrontation between good and evil. In 2016, for example, future Trump appointee Michael Anton dubbed the coming presidential contest the “Flight 93 Election.” He argued that the voters, like the passengers of that doomed plane on 9/11, must rush the cockpit and risk the possible damage of Donald Trump in order to stop the certain death represented by Hillary Clinton.22 This was not only an inept metaphor, but one that ought to be deeply offensive to any sensible person after 9/11. In something of a mea culpa four years later, the conservative evangelical writer Erick Erickson admitted to his own capture by such a mentality: “I really was one of those people who believed every election was an existential crisis and we were on the verge of destruction. I cannot bring myself to lie to you. I used to really believe the nation would collapse if Obama or Clinton or Biden got elected.”23


It should not have been a surprise, however, that this odious sophistry found a home in the American political lexicon. For years, each election has been cast by partisans as “the most important election in our lifetime,” the last charge out of the trenches, after which there would be nothing left and no second chances.24 The distance from a “Flight 93 election” to “other citizens are literal monsters” is not nearly as far as we might hope. As the conservative writer David French said in 2020, “conspiracy theories are nothing new in American life.”


Behind it all is a simple conviction, an unstated premise that lends credibility to any claim, however outlandish: “they” are so evil and so loathsome that they’d happily unleash an epidemic on the world or crush the livelihoods of millions merely to obtain a political advantage. These are not the convictions of a healthy society. These are the convictions of people consumed by rage and fear.25


Right-wing populists of the early twenty-first century have raised apocalyptic rhetoric to an art form. (To his credit, French is not one of them; he has been attacked by his former comrades on the right with shocking personal smears for his writings.) But it has become something of a tradition over several decades for Americans of all persuasions to talk in this way not just about elections, but about almost everything.


These apocalyptic narratives are dramatic nonsense. They undermine the sober reflection and deliberation that sustain democracies. The especially vexing irony here is that citizens seek out this turbocharged drama in politics not because things are bad, but precisely because life is generally good and there is usually not that much at stake in any one election. When we face ennui and relative comfort, we make up for the emptiness by replacing ordinary politics with the emotions we would normally bring to bear in wartime. We cease to be citizens so that we may imagine ourselves as crusaders. As Eric Hoffer wrote: “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves. . . . Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless.”26 When politics becomes a crusade, citizens are no longer merely going about the mundane business of choosing representatives, they are donning suits of shining armor that make them, if only for a day, the most important human beings who have ever lived.


The addiction to political drama is especially tempting because it combines with narcissism to provide people with rationalizations that make life’s humiliating pains and tribulations seem like part of a grand adventure. Losing a job, for example, is traumatic. (Yes, I’ve experienced it, and I have suffered the depression that comes with it.) Losing a job because “the system is broken” transforms a personal tragedy into a national cause. To be mugged in the street is terrifying (and I’ve experienced that, too), but to be mugged because “society is breaking down” elevates the experience from a police report to a war.


Even something as prosaic as being on the wrong side of an election—and who hasn’t experienced that?—is unpleasant and disappointing, but to lose an election because “everything is rigged against people like me” turns an electoral loss into a cause for revolution in the name of the oppressed. (Sometimes it’s more than disappointing. When I was a teenager, my mother ran for re-election to a local office in our small city. I was her campaign’s deputized observer at the vote count, and I had to go home and deliver the news to the candidate—my own mother—that she’d lost.) Why should any of us accept any of these indignities as part of the many vicissitudes of life in a large, open society, when we can instead cast ourselves as warriors securing the gates against the barbarians?


In politics, anger can propel otherwise untalented politicians and meaningless campaigns to victory. It is an emotion, however, that tends to be short-lived. It burns brightly and then burns out. The more durable and lasting fuel for illiberal politics is resentment, the reflexive expression of envy and ego that drives human beings to view political life not as a requirement for cooperation, but as an opportunity for revenge.



Resentment in politics is the externalization of envy. If there is one thing authoritarian governments do especially well, it is the way in which they mobilize resentment as a weapon. Democracy, on principle, is based on the public’s acceptance of regular cycles in which winners and losers exchange places, sometimes unexpectedly. Authoritarians, by contrast, promise stability and equality. They offer placidity by promising, without favor or exception, to make losers of everyone outside of the ruling group. By reducing all citizens to the same miserable condition, they build a constituency among those who are willing to endure oppression as long as the people they hate have to endure it as well. Resentment is about leveling rather than leadership, about vengeance rather than virtue.


Resentment, like narcissism, undermines the civic virtues of tolerance, cooperation, and equal justice, because it fuels demands for rewards and punishments based on jealousy and unhappiness rather than reason or impartial justice. It is more than just irritation at the success of others; it is an anti-democratic desire to see those others torn down in the name of “equality.” There is a more evocative word, ressentiment (imported from French by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche), that captures this vague but powerful envy of others. Mere “envy” or “resentment” isn’t enough to express the lasting toxicity of ressentiment. As the writer Joseph Epstein has explained, ordinary resentment is a “quick, stabbing thing, set off by an act of ingratitude or injustice, but that can, fairly quickly, melt away.”


But ressentiment is of greater endurance, has a way of insinuating itself into personality, becoming a permanent part of one’s character. Ressentiment, then, is a state of mind, one that leaves those it possesses with a general feeling of grudgingness toward life. . . . So much so that those suffering ressentiment come almost to enjoy the occasions for criticism that their outlook allows them.27


If you’re an academic (like me), Epstein has a particularly uncomfortable example of how people in a perfectly comfortable profession like mine can be happy and yet still itch with ressentiment about others whose talents seem more valued than our own. “Why does some ignorant lawyer have enough money to buy a villa in Tuscany when one knows so much more about the art of the Italian Renaissance? What kind of society permits this state of things to exist? A seriously unjust one, that’s what kind.”28



This sort of thinking—and as an academic, I admit to nothing here—is why the philosopher Ian Buchanan describes ressentiment as a “vengeful, petty-minded state of being that does not so much want what others have (although that is partly it) as want others to not have what they have.”29 (Epstein himself seemed to suffer from the same affliction in 2020 when he unburdened himself at length about the new First Lady, Jill Biden, using the title “doctor” because she has a doctorate in education.)30 Or, in the words of the German philosopher Max Scheler, it is existential envy “directed against the other person’s very nature,” and thus unresolvable: “I can forgive everything, but not that you are—that you are what you are—that I am not what you are—indeed that I am not you.”31 Citizens engulfed by ressentiment seek to bring others down to what they think is their own underappreciated station and to identify scapegoats to bear the blame for their own sense of inadequacy, and to answer for the oppression, real or imagined, they feel has befallen them.


Note that both the right and left in the United States think the other suffers from ressentiment and is out to inflict its revenge. “Our society is shot through with Nietzschean ressentiment,” the conservative writer Jonah Goldberg said in 2015, while Alan Wolfe, an avowed liberal, declared in 2018 that ressentiment is just another way of describing the “populism of the right.” Sadly, they both have a point.32


There is a very old joke about this kind of social resentment in the context of a peasant culture. I have heard versions of this joke in both Greece and Russia, but it can be found almost anywhere: God summons people of various nationalities, including a peasant, and offers to grant their greatest wish. Other nationalities wish for greatness for their nations, but the peasant asks nothing more than for God to kill his better-off neighbor’s plow horse. (A variation of this joke has a genie offering the peasant anything he wants, but whatever it is, his neighbor will get twice as much, so the peasant says, “Poke out one of my eyes.”)


In the 1988 American film Mississippi Burning, the screenwriter Chris Gerolmo used a much darker version of this parable in his fictionalized account of the actual murders of three civil rights workers in 1963. Two FBI agents, one an idealist from Robert Kennedy’s new Justice Department and the other an older man who had served as a sheriff in the Deep South before joining the Bureau, are discussing why there is so much hatred in the rural South. The older agent tells a story from his childhood about how his father secretly killed the mule of a prospering African Ame

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