June 2, 2017

Why Liberalism Needs Resentment



As soon as the results of the 2016 election in my adoptive state of Wisconsin were in, dumbfounded Madisonians began to blame the state’s flip to Trump (Wisconsin having gone blue in every presidential election since 1988) on rural white resentment. Although it’s possible that the state’s recently adopted restrictive voter-ID law depressed turnout in urban and traditionally Democratic havens such as Madison and Milwaukee,[1] the statewide and national debate frequently characterized Trump’s success in the Badger State as the consequence of his mobilization of poor white voters in small towns, who were fed up with a status quo they saw as primarily benefiting liberal elites in urban hubs. My colleague, Kathy Cramer, analyzed these resentments in her recent book, The Politics of Resentment (published before the election). She sees the politics of resentment in Wisconsin as driven by rural voters’ persistent belief that urban elites get more than their fair share of government resources despite being less hard-working and deserving than rural folks.[2] It seems plausible that Donald Trump’s victory was fueled by this resentment.

Most self-identified liberals saw that victory as a tragedy. They also tend to see resentment as anathema to a healthy democratic public. We liberals like to pride ourselves on our commitment to cool-headed, reasoned debate; we prize political deliberation that is fair and unbiased, not impassioned, in its treatment of issues and parties; we seek to “lower the stakes” of political debate instead of raising them, as Ryan Muldoon recently argued in this space. We think good political deliberation and choices should be driven by something other than spite. One reason for this aversion to resentment is that resentment may lead to poorly considered and cruel actions. And liberalism’s “deepest grounding,” as Judith Shklar put it, is in “the conviction of the earliest defenders of toleration, born in horror, that cruelty is an absolute evil, an offense against God or humanity.”

However, pushing resentment out of politics would cripple liberal societies in one of two ways: by disconnecting liberal citizens from their hard-wired rejection of harm (to others as well as themselves), or by convincing them that no resentment can be justified—and therefore that none has to be—because resentments are not within the realm of rational justification.

Resentment Can Be Virtuous

The aversion to troubling emotions was not shared by many of the thinkers at the heart of classical liberalism, who saw passions such as resentment as integral to justice. A paradigmatic example is Adam Smith, whose elaborate psychological account of the emergence of the virtue of justice (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) taps into the deep-seated instinct to resent wrongs done both to ourselves and others. Smith acknowledges that resentment violently disorders the mind, disrupting our natural tranquility and strongly calling out for resolution. However, this spontaneous disorder caused by resentment has salutary effects. According to Smith,

our sense of the horror and dreadful atrocity of such conduct, the delight which we take in hearing that it was properly punished, the indignation which we feel when it escapes this due retaliation, our whole sense and feeling, in short, of its ill desert, of the propriety and fitness of inflicting evil upon the person who is guilty of it, and of making him grieve in his turn, arises from the sympathetic indignation which naturally boils up in the breast of the spectator, whenever he thoroughly brings home to himself the case of the sufferer.

In other words, our motivation to punish injustice derives from our sympathetic resentment with its victims. Smith maintains that it is this painful feeling, not a consideration of its social utility (as he understood his good friend Hume to have argued), that imbues human beings with their sense of justice.

By connecting our natural aversion to harm with the punishment of it, Smith shows us why even those liberals who understand justice as a negative virtue should want to make a place for resentment in political life. What’s more, insofar as resentment makes us especially alive to the situation of the oppressed, liberals concerned with securing for all the political conditions necessary for the exercise of personal freedom should be acutely interested in it.

Beyond its direct tie to justice, resentment is also intimately related to another liberal virtue: civility. When we decry the resentments of others, we also often seek to silence their expression of them. This silencing should be deeply troubling to liberals who consider open debate the hallmark of a free society. Isn’t the ability to voice our indignation at perceived injustice central to noticing injustice in the first place?

That isn’t to say that our perceptions are always correct, but rather that we as liberals should bristle when we’re asked not to rock the boat. In this way, the call to eliminate resentment seems to stem from our mistaking civility in the colloquial sense for liberal civility in the sense that Teresa Bejan describes in her recent book on the subject: the willingness to engage in the difficult practice of at least not eliminating difference or dissent.

It might be easier for me to disregard the resentment of rural Wisconsinites than to isolate myself from it—just as it might be more comfortable to ignore the resentment of disenfranchised minorities in the state. But I can’t really purport to be upholding my commitment to liberal principles when I do.

Why Justifying Resentment Matters

Of course, I have been assuming thus far that we actually can rid ourselves of resentment, even if doing so would make us less sensitive to injustice or less open to difference of opinion. But is this true?

If we are to believe Freud or Nietzsche, we should at least consider the possibility that our attempts to excise resentment will simply succeed in repressing it, only for it to reemerge in other problematic ways. Not to put too fine a point on it, resentment left unrefined through sympathetic interaction with others can pose a real threat to liberal life if it seeks violent expression. It’s easy to think of examples of illiberal actions arising from repressed resentment, whether protests gone violently awry or the embrace of authoritarian figures or policies among citizens yearning for an outlet for their resentment.[3]

This brings me to the last point I want to make. When we frame all resentment as unjustifiable, we lose any ability either to harness it for good ends, such as motivating justice, or to differentiate between violent and nonviolent types of resentment. When we erase the distinction between different kinds of resentment, we foreclose on our opportunity to prevent its illiberal expression through the call for its sympathetic moderation.

Smith was not naïve about the potential for resentment to get out of hand. But he pointed out that

resentment seems to have been given us by nature for defence, and for defence only. It is the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence. It prompts us to beat off the mischief which is attempted to be done to us, and to retaliate that which is already done; that the offender may be made to repent of his injustice, and that others, through fear of the like punishment, may be terrified from being guilty of the like offence. It must be reserved therefore for these purposes, nor can the spectator ever go along with it when it is exerted for any other.

Thus, there is something to be gained by establishing a standard by which we can judge the resentments of others as appropriate or inappropriate. If we are encouraged to consider the perspective of others (or, better yet, that of an impartial observer) but are not dissuaded from expressing our resentment, there’s a good chance that our expression will be more moderate than it would otherwise be. For Smith, this is because of our desire for the sympathetic recognition of others. The resentment I feel as someone who witnesses injustice might not be the same as the resentment felt by the victim, but, as Smith says, “though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and this is all that is wanted or required.”

Smith views the self-command we exercise in moderating our resentment when we are injured, or in sympathizing with victims of injustice, as liberating.[4] When we assume that no resentment is ever justifiable, we take away an individual’s ability to be morally responsible for it. We thus shouldn’t seek to cast resentment out of political deliberation, but rather work toward ensuring, as Smith would have us do, that the demands of justifying our resentments and their expression fall equally on all members of a liberal polity.


Michelle A. Schwarze is the Jack Miller Center Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

[1] The 2011 voter ID law has had a series of legal challenges so far, which ended before the election with the Supreme Court denying cert and the Western District Court of Wisconsin ordering some oversight in the voter registration process.

[2] Cramer insists that, though much of this resentment is driven by implicit or explicit racism, we would be remiss to discount the anti-establishment attitudes held by rural citizens.

[3] For example, we might think of Jacob Levy’s recent discussion in this space of the failure among those motivated by partisan animosity to heed Hayek’s warning against the slide into authoritarianism in the Road to Serfdom.

[4] A fair criticism of this account has been offered by Amia Srinivasan in a forthcoming article. She sees it as imposing a particularly unfair tax on victims who not only suffer wrongs but are also held responsible for how they deal with their suffering.