Politics Populism Social status Sociology

Thomas Edsall: The Resentment that Never Sleeps

This post is a piece by Thomas Edsall published in the New York Times last week.  It explores in detail the recent literature about the role that declining social status has played in the rise of right-wing populism in the US and elsewhere.  Here’s a link to the original.

The argument is one that resonates in my own work posted here (see this, this, and this).  People are less concerned about getting ahead than they are about falling behind.  And one of the consequences of the degree-based meritocracy is the way it disparages people who lack the proper credentials, making clear to them that they are losing ground to the new educated elite.  Here is how Cecilia Ridgway puts it:

Status is as significant as money and power. At a macro level, status stabilizes resource and power inequality by transforming it into cultural status beliefs about group differences regarding who is “better” (esteemed and competent).

Those most affected tend to be neither at the top nor the bottom of the social hierarchy but somewhere in the lower middle regions.  Peter Hall says that

The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

This is one of the most trenchant analyses of Trumpism that I have yet encountered.  See what you think.

The Resentment That Never Sleeps

Rising anxiety over declining social status tells us a lot about how we got here and where we’re going.

More and more, politics determine which groups are favored and which are denigrated.

Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees: the white working and middle class. Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.

The ferocity of this politicized status competition can be seen in the anger of white non-college voters over their disparagement by liberal elites, the attempt to flip traditional hierarchies and the emergence of identity politics on both sides of the chasm.

Just over a decade ago, in their paper “Hypotheses on Status Competition,” William C. Wohlforth and David C. Kang, professors of government at Dartmouth and the University of Southern California, wrote that “social status is one of the most important motivators of human behavior” and yet “over the past 35 years, no more than half dozen articles have appeared in top U.S. political science journals building on the proposition that the quest for status will affect patterns of interstate behavior.”

Scholars are now rectifying that omission, with the recognition that in politics, status competition has become increasingly salient, prompting a collection of emotions including envy, jealousy and resentment that have spurred ever more intractable conflicts between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

Hierarchal ranking, the status classification of different groups — the well-educated and the less-well educated, white people and Black people, the straight and L.G.B.T.Q. communities — has the effect of consolidating and seeming to legitimize existing inequalities in resources and power. Diminished status has become a source of rage on both the left and right, sharpened by divisions over economic security and insecurity, geography and, ultimately, values.

The stakes of status competition are real. Cecilia L. Ridgeway, a professor at Stanford, described the costs and benefits in her 2013 presidential address at the American Sociological Association.

Understanding “the effects of status — inequality based on differences in esteem and respect” is crucial for those seeking to comprehend “the mechanisms behind obdurate, durable patterns of inequality in society,” Ridgeway argued:

Failing to understand the independent force of status processes has limited our ability to explain the persistence of such patterns of inequality in the face of remarkable socioeconomic change.

“As a basis for social inequality, status is a bit different from resources and power. It is based on cultural beliefs rather than directly on material arrangements,” Ridgeway said:

We need to appreciate that status, like resources and power, is a basic source of human motivation that powerfully shapes the struggle for precedence out of which inequality emerges.

Ridgeway elaborated on this argument in an essay, “Why Status Matters for Inequality”:

Status is as significant as money and power. At a macro level, status stabilizes resource and power inequality by transforming it into cultural status beliefs about group differences regarding who is “better” (esteemed and competent).

In an email, Ridgeway made the case that “status is definitely important in contemporary political dynamics here and in Europe,” adding that

Status has always been part of American politics, but right now a variety of social changes have threatened the status of working class and rural whites who used to feel they had a secure, middle status position in American society — not the glitzy top, but respectable, ‘Main Street’ core of America. The reduction of working-class wages and job security, growing demographic diversity, and increasing urbanization of the population have greatly undercut that sense and fueled political reaction.

The political consequences cut across classes.

Peter Hall, a professor of government at Harvard, wrote by email that he and a colleague, Noam Gidron, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, have found that

across the developed democracies, the lower people feel their social status is, the more inclined they are to vote for anti-establishment parties or candidates on the radical right or radical left.

Those drawn to the left, Hall wrote in an email, come from the top and bottom of the social order:

People who start out near the bottom of the social ladder seem to gravitate toward the radical left, perhaps because its program offers them the most obvious economic redress; and people near the top of the social ladder often also embrace the radical left, perhaps because they share its values.

In contrast, Hall continued,

The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

Gidron and Hall argue in their 2019 paper “Populism as a Problem of Social Integration” that

Much of the discontent fueling support for radical parties is rooted in feelings of social marginalization — namely, in the sense some people have that they have been pushed to the fringes of their national community and deprived of the roles and respect normally accorded full members of it.

In this context, what Gidron and Hall call “the subjective social status of citizens — defined as their beliefs about where they stand relative to others in society” serves as a tool to measure both levels of anomie in a given country, and the potential of radical politicians to find receptive publics because “the more marginal people feel they are to society, the more likely they are to feel alienated from its political system — providing a reservoir of support for radical parties.”

The populist rhetoric of politicians on both the radical right and left is often aimed directly at status concerns. They frequently adopt the plain-spoken language of the common man, self-consciously repudiating the politically correct or technocratic language of the political elites. Radical politicians on the left evoke the virtues of working people, whereas those on the right emphasize themes of national greatness, which have special appeal for people who rely on claims to national membership for a social status they otherwise lack. The “take back control” and “make America great again” slogans of the Brexit and Trump campaigns were perfectly pitched for such purposes.

Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester in the U.K., argued in an email that three factors have heightened the salience of status concerns.

The first, he wrote, is the vacuum created by “the relative decline of class politics.” The second is the influx of immigrants, “not only because different ‘ways of life’ are perceived as threatening to ‘organically grown’ communities, but also because this threat is associated with the notion that elites are complicit in the dilution of such traditional identities.”

The third factor Ford describes as “an asymmetrical increase in the salience of status concerns due to the political repercussions of educational expansion and generational value change,” especially “because of the progressive monopolization of politics by high-status professionals,” creating a constituency of “cultural losers of modernization” who “found themselves without any mainstream political actors willing to represent and defend their ‘ways of life’ ” — a role Trump sought to fill.

In their book, “Cultural Backlash,” Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, political scientists at Harvard and the University of Michigan, describe the constituencies in play here — the “oldest (interwar) generation, non-college graduates, the working class, white Europeans, the more religious, men, and residents of rural communities” that have moved to the right in part in response to threats to their status:

These groups are most likely to feel that they have become estranged from the silent revolution in social and moral values, left behind by cultural changes that they deeply reject. The interwar generation of non-college educated white men — until recently the politically and socially dominant group in Western cultures — has passed a tipping point at which their hegemonic status, power, and privilege are fading.

The emergence of what political scientists call “affective polarization,” in which partisans incorporate their values, their race, their religion — their belief system — into their identity as a Democrat or Republican, together with more traditional “ideological polarization” based on partisan differences in policy stands, has produced heightened levels of partisan animosity and hatred.

Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, describes it this way:

The alignment between partisan and other social identities has generated a rift between Democrats and Republicans that is deeper than any seen in recent American history. Without the crosscutting identities that have traditionally stabilized the American two-party system, partisans in the American electorate are now seeing each other through prejudiced and intolerant eyes.

If polarization has evolved into partisan hatred, status competition serves to calcify the animosity between Democrats and Republicans.

In their July 2020 paper, “Beyond Populism: The Psychology of Status-Seeking and Extreme Political Discontent,” Michael Bang PetersenMathias Osmundsen and Alexander Bor, political scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark, contend there are two basic methods of achieving status: the “prestige” approach requiring notable achievement in a field and “dominance” capitalizing on threats and bullying. “Modern democracies,” they write,

are currently experiencing destabilizing events including the emergence of demagogic leaders, the onset of street riots, circulation of misinformation and extremely hostile political engagements on social media.

They go on:

Building on psychological research on status-seeking, we argue that at the core of extreme political discontent are motivations to achieve status via dominance, i.e., through the use of fear and intimidation. Essentially, extreme political behavior reflects discontent with one’s own personal standing and a desire to actively rectify this through aggression.

This extreme political behavior often coincides with the rise of populism, especially right-wing populism, but Petersen, Osmundsen and Bor contend that the behavior is distinct from populism:

The psychology of dominance is likely to underlie current-day forms of extreme political discontent — and associated activism — for two reasons: First, radical discontent is characterized by verbal or physical aggression, thus directly capitalizing on the competences of people pursuing dominance-based strategies. Second, current-day radical activism seems linked to desires for recognition and feelings of ‘losing out’ in a world marked by, on the one hand, traditional gender and race-based hierarchies, which limit the mobility of minority groups and, on the other hand, globalized competition, which puts a premium on human capital.

Extreme discontent, they continue,

is a phenomenon among individuals for whom prestige-based pathways to status are, at least in their own perception, unlikely to be successful. Despite their political differences, this perception may be the psychological commonality of, on the one hand, race- or gender-based grievance movements and, on the other hand, white lower-middle class right-wing voters.

The authors emphasize that the distinction between populism and status-driven dominance is based on populism’s “orientation toward group conformity and equality,” which stands “in stark contrast to dominance motivations. In contrast to conformity, dominance leads to self-promotion. In contrast to equality, dominance leads to support for steep hierarchies.”

Thomas Kurer, a political scientist at the University of Zurich, contends that status competition is a political tool deployed overwhelmingly by the right. By email, Kurer wrote:

It is almost exclusively political actors from the right and the radical right that actively campaign on the status issue. They emphasize implications of changing status hierarchies that might negatively affect the societal standing of their core constituencies and thereby aim to mobilize voters who fear, but have not yet experienced, societal regression. The observation that campaigning on potential status loss is much more widespread and, apparently, more politically worthwhile than campaigning on status gains and makes a lot of sense in light of the long-established finding in social psychology that citizens care much more about a relative loss compared to same-sized gains.

Kurer argued that it is the threat of lost prestige, rather than the actual loss, that is a key factor in status-based political mobilization:

Looking at the basic socio-demographic profile of a Brexiter or a typical supporter of a right-wing populist party in many advanced democracies suggests that we need to be careful with a simplified narrative of a ‘revolt of the left behind’. A good share of these voters can be found in what we might call the lower middle class, which means they might well have decent jobs and decent salaries — but they fear, often for good reasons, that they are not on the winning side of economic modernization.

Kurer noted that in his own April 2020 study, “The Declining Middle: Occupational Change, Social Status, and the Populist Right,” he found

that it is voters who are and remain in jobs susceptible to automation and digitalization, so called routine jobs, who vote for the radical right and not those who actually lose their routine jobs. The latter are much more likely to abstain from politics altogether.

In a separate study of British voters who supported the leave side of Brexit, “The malaise of the squeezed middle: Challenging the narrative of the ‘left behind’ Brexiter,” by Lorenza Antonucci of the University of Birmingham, Laszlo Horvath of the University of Exeter, Yordan Kutiyski of VU University Amsterdam and André Krouwel of the Vrije University of Amsterdam, found that this segment of the electorate

is associated more with intermediate levels of education than with low or absent education, in particular in the presence of a perceived declining economic position. Secondly, we find that Brexiters hold distinct psychosocial features of malaise due to declining economic conditions, rather than anxiety or anger. Thirdly, our exploratory model finds voting Leave associated with self-identification as middle class, rather than with working class. We also find that intermediate levels of income were not more likely to vote for remain than low-income groups.

In an intriguing analysis of the changing role of status in politics, Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke, emailed the following argument. In the recent past, he wrote:

One unique thing about working class movements — particularly when infused with Marxism — is that they could dissociate class from social status by constructing an alternative status hierarchy and social theory: Workers may be poor and deprived of skill, but in world-historic perspective they are designated to be the victorious agents of overcoming capitalism in favor of a more humane social order.

Since then, Kitschelt continued, “the downfall of the working class over the last thirty years is not just a question of its numerical shrinkage, its political disorganization and stagnating wages. It also signifies a loss of status.” The political consequences are evident and can be seen in the aftermath of the defeat of President Trump:

Those who cannot adopt or compete in the dominant status order — closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of complex cultural performances — make opposition to this order a badge of pride and recognition. The proliferation of conspiracy theories is an indicator of this process. People make themselves believe in them, because it induces them into an alternative world of status and rank.

On the left, Kitschelt wrote, the high value accorded to individuality, difference and autonomy creates

a fundamental tension between the demand for egalitarian economic redistribution — and the associated hope for status leveling — and the prerogative awarded to individualist or voluntary group distinction. This is the locus, where identity politics — and the specific form of intersectionality as a mode of signaling multiple facets of distinctiveness — comes in.

In the contest of contemporary politics, status competition serves to exacerbate some of the worst aspects of polarization, Kitschelt wrote:

If polarization is understood as the progressive division of society into clusters of people with political preferences and ways of life that set them further and further apart from each other, status politics is clearly a reinforcement of polarization. This augmentation of social division becomes particularly virulent when it features no longer just a clash between high and low status groups in what is still commonly understood as a unified status order, but if each side produces its own status hierarchies with their own values.

These trends will only worsen as claims of separate “status hierarchies” are buttressed by declining economic opportunities and widespread alienation from the mainstream liberal culture.

Millions of voters, including the core group of Trump supporters — whites without college degrees — face bleak futures, pushed further down the ladder by meritocratic competition that rewards what they don’t have: higher education and high scores on standardized tests. Jockeying for place in a merciless meritocracy feeds into the status wars that are presently poisoning the country, even as exacerbated levels of competition are, theoretically, an indispensable component of contemporary geopolitical and economic reality.

Voters in the bottom half of the income distribution face a level of hypercompetition that has, in turn, served to elevate politicized status anxiety in a world where social and economic mobility has, for many, ground to a halt: 90 percent of the age cohort born in the 1940s looked forward to a better standard of living than their parents’, compared with 50 percent for those born since 1980. Even worse, those in the lower status ranks suffer the most lethal consequences of the current pandemic.

These forces in their totality suggest that Joe Biden faces the toughest challenge of his career in attempting to fulfill his pledge to the electorate: “We can restore the defining American promise, that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve. And, in doing so, we can restore the soul of our nation.”

Trump has capitalized on the failures of this American promise. Now we have to hope that Biden can deliver.

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