What makes the politics of resentment flourish in Wisconsin and Louisiana?
What makes the politics of resentment flourish in Wisconsin and Louisiana? In this paper, my purposes are (1) to outline four phenomena that nourish the politics of resentment; (2) to propose my own approach to ethnographic research that I will utilize in the future.
I will document an ethnographic case study designed to provide deeper insight into the manifestation of public opinion in rural areas of Wisconsin. I will also study the politics of resentment in Lake Charles Metropolitan Area in Louisiana, which has a population of more than 200,000. I will use public opinion polls to complement these findings to identify broader trends in American society.
This article looks to contribute to the emerging literature that argues for a wider adaptation of ethnographic methods within political science — particularly as we grapple with anti-intellectualism and democratic erosions in the post-truth era.
I hope to fill gaps in our knowledge of the politics of resentment by further operationalizing the multifaceted nature of the concept. The existing literature has not focused on how place, economic, racial, and cultural resentment interact and nourish one another in a perfect equilibrium to yield a politics of resentment.
In this paper, I argue that the politics of resentment is made up of place, economic, racial, and cultural resentments. These four features are critical to a flourishing politics of resentment. I hope to fully explore these features of the politics of resentment though intensive ethnographic interviews with a small subset of people from Wisconsin and Louisiana.
In future research, I hope to explore the role of recent cultural phenomena such as political correctness, critical race theory in schools and COVID-19 restrictions in nourishing the politics of resentment. This has been rarely discussed in the literature. Likewise, the effect of the politics of resentment on the quality of democracy in the U.S has rarely been discussed. I hope to further explore these themes for my master research paper.
The politics of resentment can be defined as when a political leader mobilizes followers around the perception that a group’s dignity had been disregarded. This resentment yields demands for public recognition from the group in question.
A humiliated group seeking restoration of its dignity carries a great deal of emotional weight — and this yields resentful political animals. In a politics of resentment, a group of people in the populace often feel hopeless and detached from the political process. These feelings of despair are a result of folks feeling a lack of control over place, economic, racial, and cultural changes.
Feelings of hopelessness are animated by the general sentiment that citizens are victims of forces and changes beyond their control — and this yields political nihilism. This helplessness is omnipresent when rural citizens perceive lawmakers in cities as indifferent to their concerns. This is a phenomenon known as place resentment. Place resentment assumes form when place-based outgroups are perceived as enjoying undeserved benefits at the expense of one’s place based ingroup.
This tension is central to the resentment rural people have against their urban counterparts. Regression results indicate that males, rural folks, those high in place identity, and those high in racial resentment are more likely to harbor higher levels of place resentment. This illustrates to us that the frustrations and agitations that make a politics of resentment are layered and intertwine seamlessly — since place resentments and racial resentments often go hand and hand.
The politics of resentment also involves people who feel animosity towards fellow residents who they perceive as eating their share of the economic pie. I will call this economic resentment. An example of economic resentment is when citizens feel resentful towards welfare recipients who refuse to work. This is often complemented by a desire to reward and facilitate self-support and self-responsibility.
Economic resentment is nourished by the experience of economic hardships, particularly by modest income, working-class whites living in rural areas dependent on agriculture or employed in blue-collar manufacturing industries. The volatility of these sectors of employment produce conditions of fear, anger and hopelessness that are easily manipulated by politicians who practice the politics of resentment.
Rising inequality and technological changes nourish economic resentment. In the U.S — the wages of college graduates relative to the wages of high school graduates increased by over 25% between 1979 and 1995 — and overall earnings inequality also increased sharply. A growing body of literature attributes income and wage inequality to skill-biased technological change — and the information-technological revolution is the culprit.
This feeling of economic displacement nourishes the politics of resentment — and those who feel these economic changes first hand blame the “other”, which could be those residing in economically vibrant city centers — or a minority group who is perceived to be taking limited recourses.
Racial resentment is another component of the politics of resentment. Former U.S President Donald Trump and his supporters are an example of a faction that practice the politics of racial resentment. Trump’s rhetoric seeks to stir up a potent mix of racial resentment, intolerance of multiculturalism, nationalistic isolationism, and nostalgia for past glories.
Trump’s campaign exploited divisions that have been growing within the electorate for decades because of demographic and cultural shifts in American society. This is at the core of the politics of resentment.
The discourse of racial resentment has explicitly propelled the conservative agenda — and a seemingly powerless and oppressed white middle class is looking to regain its once unquestioned privilege by advocating ‘color blind’ hiring and acceptance policies (in opposition to affirmative action).
The final component of the politics of resentment is what I call cultural resentment — which is when a group feels that their culture — which is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals, is under attack by an outgroup — be it elites in Washington D.C or minorities. Backlash against political correctness is at the heart of cultural resentment.
Political correctness manifests in cultural and theoretical performances that involve avoiding sensitive or offensive expressions. At the heart of Trump’s political ethos lays an assertion that the pursuit of political correctness by Washington elites has generated policies and discourse that have threatened the life, liberty, and material well-being of the populace — and this fundamentally produces an existential crisis for the nation.
Cultural resentments in the United States have been forming for decades now. In the period following World War II, new visions of American society have developed during the struggles of people of color to overcome their historical exclusion from the American cultural identity — and this has yielded a feeling of cultural displacement for many.
Multiculturalism and political correctness are new and morally assertive views of American society — and they revolve around the efforts of previously excluded groups to construct new identities. Those who practice the politics of resentment assume that these new views of American society are at odds with the interests and cultural expectations of white folks.
It is important to note that the politics of resentment is a relatively conservative phenomenon. For instance, the rural voters who supported Republican governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin explained that the elites in the capital, Madison, and in big cities outside the state simply did not understand them or pay attention to their problems — and these same voters held conservative views about political, economic, and cultural issues. The tea party is an example of a political faction that is practicing the politics of resentment.
The tea party is mainly composed of disgruntled white middle-class conservatives whose concerns exist within the context of anxieties about racial, ethnic, and generational changes in American society. Members of the tea party are not monolithically hostile toward government. Instead, they distinguish between programs perceived as going to hard-working contributors to US society like themselves and “handouts” perceived as going to unworthy or freeloading people.
A politics of resentment arises when social identities, the emotion of resentment, and economic insecurity interact and nourish each other. Resentment toward fellow citizens is front and center — and people who practice this politics understand their circumstances as the fault of guilty and less deserving social groups — not as the product of broader social, economic, and political forces.
In a politics of resentment, people intertwine economic considerations with social and cultural considerations in the interpretations of the world they make with one another. Politicians who practice the politics of resentment meticulously formulate social antagonisms by framing shifts in the forms of social pluralism in ways that yield deep political polarization, generalized distrust against “elites,” “the establishment,” “the oligarchy,” and “outsiders.”
The politics of resentment is not a new phenomenon. In 1970, Peter Binzen, presented an account of the life and assorted attitudes of lower-middle class white people, predominantly Irish, Italian, and Polish in ethnic background and Catholic in religious affiliation, residing in Kensington, a blue-collar neighborhood of Philadelphia.
He found that the residents are predominantly conservative in their social and political attitudes, and decidedly reject and fear the changes taking place in American society at the time. This fear is central to the politics of resentment.
Conservatism was revealed in their public policy preferences. For instance, Kensington residents opposed busing proposals and had an unfavorable view of open housing proposals. Kensington residents perceived themselves as a forgotten segment in the American political system.
This form of political alienation is a central feature of the politics of resentment. It is found that 57% of Kensington residents felt that their neighborhood was being neglected by the city administration at the time. The case of Kensington in the 1970s illustrates to us that the politics of resentment can be a suburban phenomenon as well.
The 1960s and 1970s set off a series of social movements that added fire to the flames of resentment. These social movements disrupted American society — and this yielded a simmering fire of resentment which exploded years later as the Tea Party.
During this era, the historically marginalized and disadvantaged came forward to talk about their mistreatment. Blacks who had fled the Jim Crow South, underpaid Latino field workers, Japanese internment camp victims, ill-treated Native Americans and immigrants from all over came together to disrupt the status quo and demand more from the state.
At the same time, women renewed their claim on the American Dream. Then gays and lesbians roared against their oppression and voiced their discontent with the state. In the 1970s, these social movements became laser focused on personal identity. These social movements left one group behind: the older, white male, especially if such a man worked in a field that didn’t particularly help the planet. He slowly became a stranger in his own land.
The University of Toronto’s (U of T) Human Research Ethics Unit (HREU) oversees ethics in human research. The HREU ensures compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies when individuals at U of T conduct research involving human participants or personal information. To conduct ethnographic research, I will need to submit a human ethics protocol — which goes through a defined review and approval process. The review process may take 4–6 weeks from submission.
My human ethics protocol will include a list of potential topics and questions I will ask my subjects — although I will likely deviate from this material during the conversation/interview. I will focus on four essential features of the politics of resentment.
The first feature is place based resentment. I will ask my interlocutors the following questions: How do you view urban lawmakers in the state capital? Do you think voter fraud in the 2020 election was more prevalent in cities? Is your suburb or town being neglected by your city or towns administration and if yes, how so?
Do you think urbanities perceive you as inferior to them? Do you think urbanities are culturally different than you and if yes, how so? Do you think urbanities are lazy? Do you think urbanities have more economic recourses and opportunities than you do? How has your town/suburb changed in the last 30 years? Do these changes make you resentful?
The second feature of the politics of resentment I will focus on is economic resentment. I will ask my interlocutors the following questions: Who do you think is eating your share of the economic pie? Who is deserving and undeserving of welfare? How has the white working class been displaced economically? How have technological changes effected the local economy?
Do you trust federal and state governments to create polices that generate wealth for all? Do you think the college educated and those in vibrant city centers are enjoying the fruits of economic growth while you are getting the short end of the stick? Has the American dream been taken away from you, and if yes, who or what is responsible for this?
Do you think globalization has left you worse off (I will define globalization for my subjects as the intensification of economic interrelations across the globe — and I will further explain to them that globalization is characterized by increased capital flows, the transnational flow of goods and services, and the easing of national borders)?
Do you think immigrants are robbing you of economic opportunities? Is globalization to blame for increases in wage inequality and decreases in low skill wages as well as manufacturing employment? What role do you think China plays in America’s economic decline?
The third theme of the politics of resentment I will explore is racial resentment. I will ask my interlocutors the following questions: What do you make of the demographic and cultural shifts in American society today? Do you feel like a stranger in your own land? Do you think the power of white working-class Americans is being taken away by minorities?
Do you think reverse racism is assuming form against whites, especially white straight males without a college degree? How do you view diversity workshops and affirmative action? Does racism exist and if it does, how should we remedy this problem? Was voter fraud in the 2020 election more likely in urban areas with a high population of minorities like Atlanta, Georgia?
The fourth and final theme of the politics of resentment I will focus on is cultural resentment. I will ask my interlocutors the following questions: Do you think politicians in Washington D.C and minorities are threatening the way of life you knew and grew up with? How do you view multiculturalism and political correctness?
Are the interests and aspirations of minority groups at odds with the American project? How do you view identity politics (the term identity politics is often used to describe phenomena as diverse as multiculturalism, the women’s movement, the civil rights movements, and separatist movements)?
How do you view the teaching of critical race theory in schools (critical race theory in the educational context is used to provide a framework for understanding the ways race-neutral policies and laws sustain and promote racial inequity)?
Is critical race theory a threat to American culture and values? How do you view professors in Academia? How do you view COVID-19 safety measures such as masking? What are your views on the COVID-19 vaccine? Do you have a disdain for scientists like Anthony Fauci and why? How do you view climate scientists?
I predict that these questions will yield nuanced answers from my participants — and these answers will reveal common patterns of thinking among those who practice the politics of resentment. I also predict that the four themes of the politics of resentment intertwine and nourish each other. For instance, economic resentments can intertwine with racial resentments.
Economic resentments stem from this idea that welfare is not going to hardworking people — and this economic resentment may be conflated with the racial resentment of the welfare queen — which is a racialized construct that presumes that a lazy woman, presumably Black, continues to have children to increase the size of her welfare check.
I suspect that place-based resentments will intersect with economic resentments. Those who practice the politics of resentment may feel animosity towards those who reside in vibrant urban city centers with ample economic opportunities.
Those who practice the politics of resentment may also feel that those in urban city centers are lazy and do not deserve the fruits of their labor. I predict that those who practice the politics of resentment in rural areas will claim that politicians in cities do not have their best economic interests in mind.
I remember chatting with my roommate in Washington D.C this summer. He was from rural Nebraska. He felt angry at the politicians in Lincoln and in D.C. He noted that these politicians had no understanding of the economic needs and wants of rural communities.
He then postulated that climate change was a manufactured crisis created by Democrats in D.C. He claimed that city folk only want to eat kale and that the Democrats in D.C want to gut the meat, dairy, and corn industry in Nebraska by pushing a green new deal.
I predict that place-based resentments will intersect with racial resentments. Those who practice the politics of resentment might claim that urban areas are riddled with crime — perhaps due to undocumented immigration and a high concentration of African Americans.
This is perhaps why those in suburban areas who practice the politics of resentment sometimes oppose public transit from the city center reaching into their suburbs. “Most of the crime in Lincoln is committed by Blacks and Latinos” said my roommate from rural Nebraska.
I suspect that racial resentments and cultural resentments will complement each other seamlessly. Those who practice the politics of resentment will make a connection between cultural decay and increasing diversity in America.
I once had a conversation with two of my other roommates from rural Tennessee this summer in D.C. It was the 4th of July, and they both had a collective disdain for the fact that the Black national anthem would be performed at the national mall. One of them spoke with anger in his voice:
“How many National anthems are we going to have? Everyone is going to want a national anthem after this!”. This reaction illustrates to us that those who practice the politics of resentment see historically marginalized groups competing for recognition as a threat to American culture.
When conducting ethnographic research, I must randomize the sample of people I will talk to. Places like McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, Walmart, and family style restaurants are good places to conduct ethnographic research. If this is not feasible, I will try to talk to people on the phone. If this is not feasible, perhaps I can explore comments on Facebook, Reddit and YouTube and find some potential people to talk to about the politics of resentment.
I could also circulate a google survey. I could also ask my previous roommates to put me in touch with some people from their towns to talk about the politics of resentment.
Conducting ethnographic research for my master’s research project will be a challenge. Being a graduate student and of Egyptian descent, I will need to build trust with my subjects. I will encourage them to speak freely, ask them if I can record them and I will be transparent with my intentions. I will tell them the conversation will be transcribed and that a select group of people will view my masters research project.
There are plenty of recourses that will help me conduct interview-based research. Digital fieldwork websites are a forum for scholars to help each other identify and capitalize on data-gathering opportunities.
This will help me explore and address data-gathering challenges that arise when conducting digital fieldwork. The use of ethnographic research will illuminate understandings — as opposed to simply establishing causality.
This approach will help me figure out the kinds of tools people use to understand politics — an approach that scholars call “interpretivist.”
I will seek information about how people understand and perceive their world. I will start with a guiding research question, identify a strategy to begin to answer it, and then sort through data to develop answers. My questions will evolve as the data is gathered. Fieldwork has an initial research design, but it must be adapted, updated, and extended.
Ethnography is the art and science used to describe a group or culture.28 Ethnographers search for predictable patterns in the lived human experiences by meticulously observing and participating in the lives of those under study. Indeed, ethnographers are vehement about going out and getting close to the activities and everyday experiences of other people.
This immersive method of research gives the researchers a rich portrait of the lives and culture of those under study. Quantitative research simply cannot provide as rich a portrait. Ethnographic methods are among the tools in the methodological toolbox — and these methods shed crucial light on central issues about political life.
The ethnographic approach has distinct characteristics. Ethnography is conducted on sight or in a naturalistic setting in which real people live — and is personalized since the researcher is both the observer and the participant in the lives of people.
There are three modes of data collection in ethnographic research that we will utilize: observation, interviewing and archival research.
Observation is unique in the sense that it combines the researcher’s participation in the lives of the people under study while also maintaining a professional distance.
Think of observation as the act of perceiving the activities and interrelationships of people in the field setting. Interviewing is the process of directing a conversation to collect information. Archival research is the analysis of existing materials stored for research, service, or other purposes officially and unofficially.
Ethnographic research involves employing a method of listening. This will help me trace the sources of resentment among rural citizens. This will give me the space to put myself in the psych of the subject and analyze both the said and unsaid. Using an ethnographic approach will underline the tensions and contradictions of everyday life.
As an ethnographer, I will be clarifying concepts that tell us how those who practice the politics of resentment think about and construct their worlds. Ethnography can help us tear down empathy walls. Empathy walls are obstacles that circumvent deep understanding of the other person. This make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.
The politics of resentment is made up of four types of distinct irritations: place based, economic, racial, and cultural. These irritations make a politics of resentment flourish. Using ethnographic methods will help us understand how these unique irritations are layered.
The politics of resentment has not been studied enough, and the role of contemporary phenomena such as COVID-19 restrictions, critical race theory and political correctness have in inflaming the politics of resentment has yet to be explored in the literature. I think this is a gap worth pursuing. I would also like to explore how the politics of resentment could diminish the quality of democracy in the U.S.
Abramowitz, Alan, and Jennifer McCoy. “United States: Racial resentment, negative partisanship, and polarization in Trump’s America.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681, no. 1 (2019): 137–156.
Acemoglu, Daron. “Technical change, inequality, and the labor market.” Journal of economic literature 40, no. 1 (2002): 7–72.
Angrosino, M. (2007). Doing ethnographic and observational research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Autor, David H., David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson. “The China shock: Learning from labor-market adjustment to large changes in trade.” Annual Review of Economics 8 (2016): 205–240.
Banack, Clark. “Ethnography and Political Opinion: Identity, Alienation and Anti-establishmentarianism in Rural Alberta.” Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique 54, no. 1 (2021): 1- 22.
Bellush, Jewel, and Nelson W. Wikstrom. “Urban Problems. Whitetown, USA: A First‐hand study of how the “silent majority” lives, learns, works, and thinks. By Peter Binzen.
Bernstein, Mary. “Identity politics.” Annu. Rev. Sociol. 31 (2005): 47–74.
Caselli, Francesco. “Technological revolutions.” American economic review 89, no. 1 (1999): 78–102.
Cohen, Jean L. “Populism and the Politics of Resentment.” Jus Cogens 1, no. 1 (2019): 5–39.
Cramer, Katherine J. The politics of resentment: Rural consciousness in Wisconsin and the rise of Scott Walker. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
De Volo, Lorraine Bayard, and Edward Schatz. “From the inside out: Ethnographic methods in political research.” PS: Political Science & Politics 37, no. 2 (2004): 267–271.
“Digital Fieldwork.” Digital Fieldwork. Georgetown. Accessed December 7, 2021.
Dixson, Adrienne D., and Celia K. Rousseau. Critical race theory in education. Taylor & Francis, 2016.
Engels, Jeremy. The Politics of Resentment. Penn State University Press, 2021.
“Ethics in Human Research.” Ethics in Human Research | VPRI. Accessed November 29, 2021.
Fetterman, D. M. (1998). Ethnography: Step by step (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Fukuyama, Francis. Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment. 2018.
Gilens, Martin. Why Americans hate welfare: Race, media, and the politics of antipoverty policy. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Hickel, Flavio R., and Andrew R. Murphy. “Making America Exceptional Again: Donald Trump’s Traditionalist Jeremiad, Civil Religion, and the Politics of Resentment.” Politics and Religion (2021): 1–23.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. The New Press, 2018.
Inglehart, Ronald F., and Pippa Norris. “Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism: Economic have-nots and cultural backlash.” (2016).
McCarthy, Cameron, and Greg Dimitriadis. “Governmentality and the sociology of education: Media, educational policy and the politics of resentment.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 21, no. 2 (2000): 169–185.
Mir, Usman Riaz, Syeda Mahnaz Hassan, and Mubashir Majeed Qadri. “Understanding globalization and its future: An analysis.” Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences (PJSS) 34, no. 2 (2014): 607–624.
Munis, B. Kal. “Us over here versus them over there literally: measuring place resentment in American politics.” Political Behavior (2020): 1–22.
Piazza, James A. “The determinants of domestic right-wing terrorism in the USA: Economic grievance, societal change and political resentment.” Conflict management and peace science 34, no. 1 (2017): 52–80.
Pruitt, Lisa R. “Welfare queens and white trash.” S. Cal. Interdisc. LJ 25 (2016): 289.
Reinelt, Janelle. “The performance of political correctness.” Theatre Research International 36, no. 2 (2011): 134- 147.
Sangasubana, Nisaratana. “How to conduct ethnographic research.” Qualitative Report 16, no. 2 (2011): 567–573.
Skocpol, Theda, and Vanessa Williamson. The Tea Party and the remaking of Republican conservatism. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Spencer, Martin E. “Multiculturalism, “political correctness,” and the politics of identity.” In Sociological Forum, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 547–567. Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers, 1994.
Wedeen, Lisa. “Reflections on ethnographic work in political science.” Annual Review of Political Science (2010): 255–272.