The Politics of Resentment
Posted on April 15, 2009The Politics of Resentment
Resentment has always played a key role in the art of modern political strategy.
Franklin Roosevelt played the resentment card beautifully in his first inaugural address, targeting Wall Street financiers and the rich:
“Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. True, they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money…The money changers have fled their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.”
Richard Nixon, amid the tumult of the 1960’s, aimed to steer the resentments of the “great silent majority” towards protesters, criminals and those who upset middle class sensibilities. As he said in 1968 convention speech:
“Tonight it's time for some honest talk about the problem--of order in the United States. ..Let those who have the responsibility to enforce our laws, and our judges who have the responsibility to interpret them, be dedicated to the great principles of civil rights. But let them also recognize that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence. And that right must be guaranteed in this country…
Because, my friends, let this message come through clear from what I say tonight. Time is running out for the merchants of crime and corruption in American society. The wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future in the United States of America. . . .
And to those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, here is a reply: Our goal is justice-justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect. Just as we cannot have progress without order, we cannot have order without progress.”
Nixon’s strategy continued with Ronald Reagan, who aimed his fire not only at “liberals” but also at the government itself. As he said his first inaugural address:
“In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
All of us together -- in and out of government -- must bear the burden.”
Barack Obama has returned to the playbook of Mr. Roosevelt.
For Mr. Obama, the problem is not government, or the protesters. The problem is the rich, who haven’t paid their fair share, and the lobbyists who fight on their behalf. As he said in a campaign speech:
Instead of working to find ways to relieve the burden on the middle class, we've developed creative ways to remove the burden from the well-off. Instead of having all of us pay our fair share, we've got over $1 trillion worth of loopholes in the corporate tax code.
This isn't the invisible hand of the market at work. It's the successful work of special interests. For decades, we've seen a successful strategy to ride anti-tax sentiment in this country toward tax cuts that favor wealth, not work. And for decades, we've seen the gaps in wealth in this country grow wider, while the costs to working people are greater.
We've got a shift in our tax values that disproportionately benefits the wealthiest Americans; corporate carve-outs that serve no national purpose; tax breaks that allow companies to stash their profits overseas; a government that's paralyzed when dealing with offshore tax haven countries; an overloaded tax code that's too complicated for ordinary folks to understand, but just complicated enough to work for someone who knows how to work the system.
When big business doesn't like something in the tax code, they can hire a lobbyist to get it changed, but most working people can't afford a high-priced lobbyist. Instead of honoring that core American value - opportunity for all - we've had a system in Washington where our laws and regulations have carved out opportunities for the few.
In other words, Obama has skillfully made a play for the broad middle class, pitting them against the rich and their lobbyists. Because of the financial crisis, this new politics of resentment resonates particularly well. Obama has also made a bargain with this group. You stay with me and you will get money back. Your taxes will not go up. And I will find ways to put you back to work.
That Obama is of African-American descent is particularly interesting. His election is a rejection of Nixonian politics of resentment, a politics that used racial archetypes to attract Southern Democrats and white “hard-hat” ethnics to the Republican cause.
Republicans, especially conservative Republicans, should take note. While they may dislike Obama intensely, while they may not trust him, while they may think that he is not truly American and that he does not share their values, that opinion is not shared by many middle-class Americans who now dislike the “rich” and their “lobbyists” more than they dislike “liberals”, “protesters” and “criminals”.
Should Obama break that promise with the middle-class, should he decide that he needs the money to pay for bigger government, that is the time for Republicans to pounce.
In the meantime, Republicans should train their fire not on the poor, not on any ethnic group, not on “welfare queens”, but on the government. It should come up with real plans to improve the competence of government services, to weed out waste, fraud and abuse, to crack down on corruption, to improve law enforcement, and to restore the proper balance between the governed and the government.