The Politics of Resentment
The proportion of national output going to the top 1 percent went from 9 percent of GDP in 1974 to 24 percent in 2008. But as important as material self-interest is, human beings are motivated by other things as well, motives that better explain the disparate events of the present. This might be called the politics of resentment.
In a wide variety of cases, a political leader has mobilised followers around the perception that the group’s dignity had been affronted, disparaged, or otherwise disregarded. This resentment engenders demands for public recognition of the dignity of the group in question. A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity carries far more emotional weight than people simply pursuing their economic advantage.
Thus, Russian president Vladimir Putin has talked about the tragedy of the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and how Europe and the United States had taken advantage of Russia’s weakness during the 1990s to drive NATO up to its borders. He despises the attitude of moral superiority of Western politicians and wants to see Russia treated not, as President Obama once said, as a weak regional player, but as a great power.
Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, stated in 2017 that his return to power in 2010 marked the point when ‘we Hungarians also decided that we wanted to regain our country, we wanted to regain our self-esteem, and we wanted to regain our future’.
In a wide variety of cases, a political leader has mobilised followers around the perception that the group’s dignity had been affronted, disparaged, or otherwise disregarded.
The Chinese government of Xi Jinping has talked at length about China’s ‘one hundred years of humiliation’, and how the United States, Japan, and other countries were trying to prevent its return to the great power status it had enjoyed through the past millennia of history.
When the founder of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was fourteen, his mother found him fixated on Palestine, ‘tears streaming down his face as he watched TV from their home in Saudi Arabia’. His anger at the humiliation of Muslims was later echoed by his young coreligionists volunteering to fight in Syria on behalf of a faith they believed had been attacked and oppressed around the world. They hoped to re-create the glories of an earlier Islamic civilisation in the Islamic State.