Effective political action always involves the mobilization of unpleasant human emotions. Lately the right has been better than the left in playing on the resentments of the population. While dismissing concerns about material inequality as class hatred, the Republicans have played on the envy that so many middling people have for the possessors of disproportionate amounts of cultural capital. True, the merest idiot can become rich by inheriting millions while even the most privileged child has to work to become educated, but this modest element of fairness makes things worse. Even the saddest loser can identify with one of our lumpenmillionaires since the difference between the wretchedness of the pleb and the splendor of the mogul is mostly just luck or can be imagined to be luck. The sorriest specimen on earth can identify with Donald Trump. Indeed, being a sorry specimen makes it all the easier. Meanwhile the hateful thing about cultured people is not the possibility that they are fakes, but the suspicion that they aren’t. As Nietzsche pointed out over a hundred years ago, it is not the presumption of merit that offends. It’s merit itself.
There is no general way of getting around the human propensity to hate the competition. A worker who works too hard will be restrained by the other workers. A black kid who tries to escape the Inner City will be pulled back by his friends and relations—the so-called crab bucket effect. In their endless celebration of mediocrity, the Republicans merely apply the same principle to politics. One can fight this tactic by promoting candidates like Clinton, the Galactic Mule of American politics, whose tremendous charm made people forgive him his competence; but there aren’t very many Clintons around. And the situation gets worse because our form of civilization really does tend to debase and infantilize most people, thus increasing their need for psychic compensation.
What’s needed is an appeal to some equally problematic but powerful psychological mechanism. Unfortunately, the obvious and probably necessary choice is the premeditated awakening of the sense of political justice, by which I do not mean the benign and healing process of assessing responsibility for what happens, but the reckless and imperative desire to punish political enemies.