Resentment and populism: A philosophical inquiry

Group of people protesting and giving slogans in a rally. Photo: Jacob Lund.

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

By Luca Mancin

Anger, resentment, and rancor characterize the present. As hate speech, violence, and discrimination—which are a natural consequence of discontent, distrust, and disillusionment—invade our societies, politics seemingly mirrors such behaviors. After the 2008 financial and economic crisis, several social groups manifested their dissatisfaction and intolerance toward the “system” and “powers that be.” Consider, for instance, movements as the Indignados (a Spanish anti-austerity movement), the Gilets Jaunes (a protest movement for economic justice in France), and the V-Day protestors (an Italian political and civic initiative to “clean up” the parliament). They are forms of protest that claim general and generic changes but are animated by the desire for revenge against those in power and therefore held responsible for the their current malaise.

Such groups’ quest for revenge reflects an elite legitimacy crisis that stems from experts’ (purported) failure to guarantee social well-being and security. For instance, the challenges faced by virologists and scientists in getting a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic (at least in the beginning) have heightened the risk that messages that epistemic elites are useless and that the costs of their existence outweigh the benefits will become more entrenched and widespread.

Thus, social frustration, originating from socio-political and socio-economic problems, has been channeled by the populist parties, which feed and sharpen social polarization. Populist parties exploit discontent stemming from a perceived elites’ failure, and they find fertile ground in times of crisis. Such tendencies increase tribalism among ordinary citizens and the political establishment and originate from social resentment. Therefore, it is essential to understand the political importance of social resentment and investigate it from a philosophical perspective.

Resentment and Populism

I decided—among several alternative interpretations—to focus on the resentment dimension of populism by adopting the ideational approach, which considers populism a thin-centered ideology. Consequently, following Mudde (2004: 543), I define populism as: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

I believe such a definition helps better define the polarization and dichotomy that populism entails and the tribalism it promotes. Indeed, I consider social and collective resentment a crucial factor in the development of populism. Current democratic societies feature internal contrasts and tensions, and social opposition and the search for culprits to blame for unsatisfactory circumstances are widespread. Besides, as a recent report from the Nordic think tank Timbro (2019) shows, in times of crisis, populism gains ground —from 2008, the year of the global financial crisis, to 2018, voter support for authoritarian populists in Europe expanded significantly. Tonello et al. (2016) suggest the most recent wave of populism in Europe has emerged from voters’ desire to communicate a clear “rejection” of incumbent governments (deemed unable to cope with the challenge to the economic crisis).

The research and statistical surveys conducted by Algan et al. (2017, 2019) stress how three types of crisis—political, economic, and cultural– stimulate the rise of populist forces. The political crisis manifests itself in the form of distrust of national and international political institutions. In particular, the data show a sharped relationship between voting in favor of anti-system forces and citizens’ distrust of institutions. The economic crisis, one of the triggers of political resentment, is instead produced by the economic upheavals that have resulted in income erosion and unemployment. Statistics confirm the relationship between the economic crisis and the success of populism. Here, according to the authors, a 1 percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate leads to an average increase of 2–3 percentage points in favor of anti-system parties. Finally, the component of mistrust also returns in the cultural crisis because the unfulfilled promises have caused broad disillusionment to spread among the citizens.

Consequently, it is plausible to consider resentment as a cause of populism. According to Foa et al. (2019), the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election were political events driven by resentment. The article’s data show social cleavages that create a socio-political identikit of pro-Leave voters or Trump’s electors. What such people had in common was deep anger toward the political establishment and social resentment toward elites (the European Union in the Brexit case, and the Democratic Party in Trump’s).

Mudde’s definition of populism allows us to highlight the importance of resentment in populism’s origins. After all, populism is an ideology (albeit a thin-centered one) and so evokes a vision of how the world is and how it should be. Being thin-centered reflects “the empty heart of populism that gives it both weakness and potential ubiquity” (Taggart, 2004: 275). It is, therefore, an incomplete and chameleonic theoretical approach because the terms “people” and “elite” are in turn shaped on other ideologies, representing empty categories fillable in different ways depending on the context. Such a solution allows populist politics to stir up the crowd’s anger toward ever new and diverse scapegoats. For this reason, it is now opportune to focus our attention on resentment—particularly on its philosophical dimension—to better understand current social problematics.

A Philosophical Genealogy of Resentment

Resentment (or ressentiment) is defined as the indignation that an individual feels toward someone or something due to behavior considered harmful or unfair. Such a feeling is a combination of resentment, hatred, envy, humiliation, and helplessness. The resentful person hatches hatred and anger in an almost pathological way, envies the goods and qualities of others, suffers from his weakness and inadequacy.

Concerning the aim of the commentary, it is worth focusing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1994) conception of resentment, exposed in his On the Genealogy of Morality (first published in 1887). The work in question theorizes how the “good”—that is, noble and strong individuals—have defined themselves as such, arrogating the right to forge their values ​​and emphasizing their peculiar superiority. Thus, the crucial contrast for the entire Nietzschean moral theory emerges—between knights and priests and between nobles and slaves. The former are physically thriving and the latter utterly powerless. As a result, the “bad” harbor a certain degree of resentment, which in turn feeds a desire for revenge over the nobles and the brave. The men of resentment, thirsting for revenge despite wearing the clothes of judges, are guided by the “ascetic priest” and are the enemies of life because they desire another world; in so doing, they demean their will to power. Nietzsche describes men of ressentiment, worn out by envy and prey to frustration, as follows: “These worm-eaten physiological casualties are all men of ressentiment, a whole, vibrating realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in its eruptions against the happy, and likewise in masquerades of revenge and pretexts for revenge” (1994: 91).

Nevertheless, it is essential to consider Max Scheler’s reworking of the Nietzschean ressentiment. Indeed, it provides the best theoretical basis for making the transition from personal resentment to social resentment. Scheler understands ressentiment as the ethos of the bourgeoisie. To occur, resentment requires “repression,” the failure to vent negative emotions. The origin of resentment consists in the repression of hatred, hostility, and aggression in stifling their outburst. Generally, the Schelerian ressentiment involves powerlessness and passivity but also a diminishing of others’ success and Schadenfreude. Scheler (1912: 4) describes this sentiment as a: “…self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.”

Therefore, ressentiment is a reaction whose natural consequence is the impulse to revenge. However, it manifests itself only and exclusively when the feelings of hatred, rancor, envy are not followed by a moral overcoming (as forgiveness can be) nor by a physical overcoming (violence or threat, for example). The ground of resentment is especially limited to those who find themselves in conditions of servitude or domination, unable to rebel against such harassment. Such a condition is identifiable as “existential envy,” the bitterness deriving from the fact that one person cannot be similar to another. Thus, it is apparent that Schelerian ressentiment is always the result of the confrontation between the self and the other that is not disciplined but instead results in a self-conviction of weakness and ineptitude.

A constant reciprocal competition emerges here, as men compare themselves with others to obtain feedback on their value. Such a dynamic conducts us to the “mimetic theory” developed by the French anthropologist René Girard. Mimesis is defined as the desire of an individual to be like the other. According to mimetic theory, the model is both admired/imitated and envied/hated because it always occupies the place one would like for oneself. A triangular relationship then emerges between subject, model, and object, in which both the subject and the model desire the same object, but the latter almost loses its importance in light of the conflict between the two parties. Therefore, resentment for Girard is the feeling that the imitator feels toward the model he wants to imitate, which constitutes the impediment to taking possession of the object on which both focus their desires.

Existential envy and social mimicry, which are based on comparison and competition with others, are essential theoretical presuppositions for the analysis of social and collective resentment, which is currently widespread in populist and political rhetoric. Understanding the philosophical origins of resentment allows us to read contemporary political life through the lens of an emotive dichotomy between people and the elite.

The Cultural Politics of Resentment

The phenomena of existential envy and social mimicry on a collective level feature liberal democracy because citizens tend to look at those who enjoy greater power and wealth with rancor and anger. Moreover, resentment is a natural component of democracy precisely because it stimulates and fuels reactions in the face of any injustice and inequality. However, resentment is often added to the envy of inequalities, dictated by the belief that they have suffered harm. Crisis and uncertainty exacerbate such a provision. This happened after the Great Recession of 2008, as was the case following the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. And it is happening today with the Covid-19 pandemic underway.

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

What Nietzsche, Scheler, and Girard describe is expressed today in populist rhetoric. Marlia Banning (2006) defines such behavior as the “political culture of resentment.” Her meaning here is that this rhetoric aims to divert attention from socio-economic issues such as job loss, underemployment, and growing economic insecurity. The political culture of resentment is a “smoke machine” that diverts attention and public discussion from the changes taking place in society toward minority or immigrant groups. In this way, the ressentiment conveys insecurity, fear, and anger against an indeterminate “Other.”

Besides, according to Banning, the political culture of resentment favors the development of identity politics, or rather an identity alliance necessary to cement a group that shares a series of values, diverting attention from material difficulties and socio-economic changes. In this way, a “politics of division” is created, which increases polarization and bias within society. Attitudes of tribalism are sufficiently heightened that all critical thinking fails—it is enough to be part of the so-called “other” to become the target of insults and political attacks.

Populist rhetoric, thus, manages to manipulate and exploit the resentment of citizens and direct it against a common enemy by satisfying the thirst for social revenge by identifying a scapegoat for this purpose. Society needs to channel the resentment and suppressed anger of its citizens toward an external enemy, as Girard illustrated in The Scapegoat (1986) and James Frazer did in The Golden Bough (1890). Today this “Other” is often represented as a threat to the individual mass and can take on different features—the establishment, the financial elite, or migrants—and is an essential element of the rhetoric typical of the populist style. The populist political forces leverage the resentment that arises against the elites in conditions of fear and uncertainty when security expectations are disregarded. By doing so, populisms channel citizens’ anger by obtaining voters’ support and cementing the sense of value-ideological belonging.

The examples of Brexit and Trump I gave above are crucial in describing the practical developments of the phenomena of social resentment. The Leavers have directed their discontent toward the European Union, convinced by politicians that the problem was external to Great Britain (as with the issue of migrants). Trump, for his part, has incited with his tweets to protest against the alleged electoral fraud, thus channeling the discontent that snaked online toward the center of American power par excellence, in a plastic and material representation of the contrast between the people and the elite.

After all, Nietzsche was clear about it: every sufferer looks for the cause of his affliction, convinced that there must be someone responsible for his suffering. The problem is not the pain itself but the origin of the pain. If you suffer, then someone must be the cause. In On the Genealogy of Morality, the ascetic priest cares for and ministers to the sick flock. Similarly, today, the politician must heal the resentment of citizens. As Nietzsche (1994: 93) wrote, “the priest is the direction-changer of ressentiment.” Today the populist leader does the same, directing the resentment of the “pure people” against “the corrupt elite.”


Timbro (2019). “Authoritarian Populism Index.” (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Banning, M. E. (2006). “The Politics of Resentment.” JAC. 26(1/2): 67–101

Foa, Roberto Stefan & Wilmot, Jonathan. (2019). “The West Has a Resentment Epidemic.” Foreign Policy. September 18, 2019. (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Frazer, James George. (1890). The Golden Bough.

Girard, R. (1986). The Scapegoat. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press

Nietzsche, Fredrick. (1994), On the Genealogy of Morality [1887]. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Mudde, Cas. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4): 541–563

Scheler, Max (1912). Ressentiment (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Taggart, Paul. (2004). “Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 9(3): 269–288

Tonello, F. & Morini, M. (2016). “Alternanze di governo e grandi coalizioni nell’Unione europea. 2008–2015.” In: Urbinati, N. (edited by). Democrazie in transizione. Milan, Feltrinelli

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