Not long ago, our elites fretted that Election 2012 was going to be all about how much we resented them. Either a populist hateswell of “bitter clingers” would triumph over the progressive spirit of expert competence, they gulped, or sanity — in the form of elite speech, elite deeds and elite power — would prevail.
The apparent eclipse of tea partiers by occupiers reassured many elites that the politics of resentment had croaked out its last.
But some wondered if resentment wasn’t actually spreading its wings — rising on the left, Greek style, as well as the right.
And a few claimed that what looked to elites of both parties like resentment was really the first stirring of an across-the-board movement rooted in the promise of a new “radical center.”
In fact, all these views of the politics of resentment are mistaken. For Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who mainstreamed the idea, the essential precondition of social resentment was a ruling class that actually had something — really, the one thing — dearly worth being jealous about.
Money, power, even status — none of these things, Nietzsche suggests, are really enough to instill true resentment. Instead, he argues, those who are resented are the ones so inherently well-constituted that they don’t measure their self-worth in comparison to others. Instead of a resentful worldview that sees the successful other as evil, Nietzsche’s naturally endowed have a “truly” elite worldview that starts from the premise that the self is good — and ends with an attitude that’s all pride and no pity.
Today’s elites, in stark contrast to the ones of Nietzsche’s imagination, are living monuments to self-pity. Perhaps never before have so many elites been so bummed out — about the world they’ve made, about their failure to make it better and about the prospects for turning things around.
They peddle a sunny attitude, but they struggle to lead by example. Beneath the superficial optimism is a deep, deep funk. They try to displace it onto “the people,” or “the country,” or “the world,” but they fail at that, too. Barack Obama’s lamentation that we “have lost our ambition, our imagination and our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge” is symptomatic of the cultural collapse of elite confidence.
Elite Democrats know (as I warned) that Obama’s promise of an era both transformational and glorious will never be fulfilled, even if his damaged goods occupy 1600 Pennsylvania for a long and dreary second term.
Elite Republicans nurse their own woes. Bill Kristol writes that “[r]eversing Obama’s weakness abroad, repealing Obamacare, restoring solvency and prosperity and limiting government at home” are “tasks too important not to be achieved because of our nostalgic disappointment that we will not, in 2012, replay a moment that is not to be again — and that perhaps never truly was.” But on the elite Republican view, bolstered by chart after chart predicting painfully slow progress under even the most favorable conditions, the reward for a stiff upper lip is a decades-long war of attrition. “2012 isn’t going to be another 1980,” he sighs. “The reality seems to be that we’re not going to have a chance to replay that election.”
The reality is that today’s elites have plenty of reasons for self-pity. Though several leaders or would-be leaders show individual promise, as a class, America’s elite — to say nothing of the West’s, or the world’s — is dismayingly ill-constituted.
It’s almost as if that dismay is what’s really at the heart of our populist uprisings.
Alas, the story is sadder even than that. Of all the sour notes hit by the occupiers, the strangest and most important is that of the elite wannabes among them, united with their superficially successful role models in self-pitying pessimism. Some rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. Others pitch tents.
Now look — if you can bear it — abroad. What is the response of our national elites to the wrenching changes about to impact the world, and threatening our place in it? A sweeping review of our grand strategy?
The vortex formed by the collapse of the European project, the rise of an unstable China, the disorder of the Muslim world and the discontent of the Global South does not even merit one of the elites’ patented, snow-kissed, sponsored-to-the-gills ideas festivals.
The Obama doctrine — speak softly and carry a big drone — is all tactics, all reaction, all holding pattern. And the Republican field cannot rub two words together about the logic behind the radical reassessment of American foreign policy that must come.
But neither they nor we can purge our elites from our leadership class — or wring the self-pity from our elites. Our elites’ pundit of record, the thoroughly bummed out David Brooks, is wrong to whine about Herman Cain that “governing is a job for professionals.” But he is right to intuit that Cain — to take just one example — is unprepared to withstand the crushing pressure of the vacuum of failure at the very heart of our imploding regime.
In all likelihood, only a massive, unspinnable collapse of everything our elites hold true and dear will dislodge them from power — or (one can dream) snap them out of their pity party and into something like bravery.
It’s a moment of truth that’s been long in the making. “Optimism and self-pity [as Orwell’s contemporary Cyril Connolly once put it] are the positive and negative poles of modern cowardice.” Caught pathetically between, our elites have turned out to be the real bitter clingers.
Who could ever resent them?
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.