A new book by Robert Schneider, The Return of Resentment The Rise and Decline and Rise Again of a Political Emotion (University of Chicago Press), explores the term “resentment” to explain political and social movements going back several centuries, while probing the term’s evolving meaning as it is used to describe groups ranging from MAGA followers and Brexit supporters, to Islamic fundamentalists and adherents to identity politics.
Spotlight: Robert Schneider
In the book, Schneider, a Professor in the Department of History within the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, both looks back on American, British, and European history from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, as well as examines contemporary, twenty-first century political culture, revealing that, “Resentment comes about when people who know one another and otherwise identify with—their neighbors, their community, people they're related to in some way—have departed, in one group’s eyes, from normal expectations, such that now that group feels like they are being left behind, or have suffered some kind of moral injury,” he said.
In Return of Resentment, “I look at the return of resentment in the dual sense,” Schneider explained. “Resentment on the one hand is a legitimate category of understanding political and social movements—that is, having a grievance, which is mixed up with an idea in a group’s mind of how the world is and should be ordered, and something has happened to overturn it that appears wrong and unjust, and against that group’s interest.”
Schneider added, “But in another respect, resentment can be used by one group to dismiss legitimate critique, to dismiss or disdain certain social and political movements as being twisted and distorted in their view of the world.”
Schneider’s book is an intellectual history of the concept of resentment, how it has both evolved and been deployed over the centuries in different political, social, and economic contexts in modern history. Drawing on the works of writers and scholars including Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Frantz Fanon, the journalist and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry, Richard Hofstadter, and other contemporary social scientists, he explores a term that, while it has defied easy categorization, “has helped historians and others define and examine collective mentalities,” he said.
To see resentment in action, “I go back to the sixteenth century, using for example the Salem witch trials in 1692,” Schneider said. “There have been deep studies of who the various people were—the accused and the accusers—and the research bears out that it’s pretty clear the people who accused their neighbors of being witches were motivated by a sense of resentment. That is, the accusers believed these people had strayed from the Puritan path, had become more commercially oriented towards the Atlantic economy, and were departing, not only from traditional ways, but from agricultural living. It was a deep sort of resentment; their moral expectations were being overturned, leading, in their collective mind, to moral injury.”
Schneider also discusses resentment in other contexts, including the French Revolution in the eighteenth century pitting the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy; and the Luddite movement in nineteenth century England protesting the introduction of machinery in factories. In the book, there are a whole set of episodes that I deal with through the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, where I see resentment as a way of understanding the sense of people being left behind.”
Schneider devotes a significant portion of the book to the twentieth century, where, “I show that up until the 1930s and 40s, we could see resentment as being an active category of explaining things like populism, fascism, antisemitism.” Then, according to Schneider, “It gets complicated.”
He argues that in reaction to the counter-cultural and protest movements of the 1960s, “We begin to see a movement in the U.S. associated with the silent majority and Richard Nixon, and the rise of Christian fundamentalism.” Then, in the 1980s, Islamic fundamentalism gained increasing prominence and influence on the world stage. “What emerges is the realization that we only understood how important these movements were when it was too late.”
One of the reasons why social scientists and historians didn't put their finger on these movements when they were happening, Schneider asserts, was partly due to disagreements within and across academic disciplines. “There was a way in which the historians of my generation didn't want to deal with collective psychology or socio-psychological analyses. We weeded out the analytical vocabulary associated with resentment. As a consequence, we missed what was happening, a very difficult-to-seize movement that was often religious, but was motivated, I believe, by people who felt left behind.”
Given the politics of resentment today – and the seemingly continuous breakdown in civil discourse in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere – what is the way forward?
“The only answer I have,” Schneider said, “is that resentment invites us to see that it's a term that should not be used just to delegitimize people, which is how it's often used across the political spectrum. Whether describing ‘fascist’ conservatives or ‘woke’ liberals, the tendency is for one group to say of the other, ‘Oh, they're just they're just twisted, they're bitter, they're the losers. Get over it.’ Rather, I think we have to understand resentment, by seeking to appreciate what grievances give rise to it—that is, what lies behind it.”
“Look, a person’s politics or worldview may be extremely distasteful, and some may not want us to look at another group with any empathy. We don’t have to embrace another’s worldview, but if we identify resentment as something we have to confront, that there’s something behind it, it thus requires a more patient, understanding approach to people and the way they manifest their resentment.”