The Politics of Resentment

By Paul Glastris
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This month we feature, among other fine pieces, a profile by Jacob Heilbrunn of uber-neocon Norman Podhoretz ( "Norman's Conquest"). Podhoretz is a senior foreign policy advisor to Rudy Giuliani. He has argued that the Iraq War is a triumphant success and that bombing Iran is an unavoidable necessity. Most recently, he has suggested that the latest National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons in 2003 is the work of disloyal anti-Bush intelligence officials—a notion he retracted after it was pointed out to him that the president's own people control the elaborate process by which the NIE is put together.

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That Podhoretz would make such accusations, and such a rookie mistake, isn't surprising. He has no government experience, no real foreign policy expertise, and has spent his entire professional life as an editor and polemical essayist. Why, then, would Giuliani choose him as a foreign policy mentor? The answer, says Heilbrunn, is that the two men are drawn together by a shared set of liberal enemies and an almost pathological combativeness each learned growing up on the streets of Brooklyn.

Podhoretz has been quite honest about the various animosities he acquired in his youth. In his seminal 1963 essay "My Negro Problem—and Ours," he confesses to sometimes feeling toward African Americans "twinges of fear and ... resentment," as a result of being repeatedly beaten up as a kid by blacks. In one incident, he is confronted on the sidewalk by a "surly Negro boy named Quentin." The boy gives Podhoretz a violent shove. Podhoretz pushes him back—and is knocked unconscious by the bat-wielding Quentin.

Blacks are just one group Podhoretz grew up to resent. In his autobiography Making It, he seethes at the treatment he, the child of poor eastern European Jewish parents, was afforded by his fellow classmates at Columbia University—"the prep school boys ... the homosexuals with their supercilious disdain ... and the prissily bred middle-class Jews who thought me insufferably rude."

Such powerfully felt class and ethnic animosities are, of course, not uncommon. It's what makes many people—and much of American politics—tick. In an intellectual way, I get this. But on an emotional level, I confess, I mostly don't.

This may have to do with where and when I was raised—not on the mean streets of New York in the 1930s and '40s but in the mostly quiet suburbs of St. Louis in the 1960s and '70s. Such places weren't breeding grounds of ethnic and class hatreds, for the simple reason that there wasn't much evident ethnic and class diversity. I don't think I knew a single kid growing up whose family was truly poor, nor more than one or two who were truly rich. Most of my friends had Irish and German last names but were remarkably unaware of their ethnic heritage.

I was the exception in that regard. My family was Greek American, and you could not be around my parents for more than five minutes without their letting you know as much. Our ethnic pride was—and remains—unbounded, in part because our identity carries with it no painful, double-edged issues. We are not (with rare exceptions) a hated minority. Nor are we taught to hate others (except maybe Turks). Quite the contrary: Greeks are raised to believe that all people should be proud of who they are—but especially Greeks, considering the gifts we showered (and continue to shower) on civilization. There is no such thing as a self-hating Greek.

I had only one childhood experience that was remotely comparable to Podhoretz's, and it didn't have the same effect on me. In the 1960s, we lived in a ranch house in the suburb of Kirkwood. Such was the nature of segregation in those days that we were largely unaware that a few blocks away, on the other side of Kirkwood Road, was the all-black community of Meacham Park. In 1968, Meacham Park kids began to be bused to my school, Robinson Elementary. Overnight Robinson went from being all white to about 30 percent black. I was in the fourth grade at the time, old enough to be aware that my new classmates were different, but not old enough to care all that much. Indeed, except for their skin color, many of the African American kids dressed and behaved pretty much like we did.

But there was a group of black guys who were orders of magnitude tougher than the toughest white kids I knew. One day, I inadvertently knocked one of these boys, Maurice, off the monkey bars. Later, Maurice and his friend, a wiry kid named Lynn—whose left eye, I recall, had a pupil shaped like a star—found me in the bathroom and started shoving me against the wall. It was the scariest moment of my young life. Unlike Podhoretz, however, I felt no desire to shove back, and the boys left me alone after that.

The lure of more house for the money led my parents to move us to the exurbs the summer after fourth grade. It was a sensible decision, but personally I had no urge to leave. The only lesson I took away from the incident in the bathroom was that it is wise to give tough black guys a wide berth. Indeed, on balance, I rather liked being in a school that wasn't all white; it made things more interesting.

My childhood, then, was not one that left many chips on my shoulder. Or maybe it's just that I'm not by nature a very resentful person. Whatever the case, I do understand that class and ethnic resentments are for some the result of genuinely painful experiences. I just have very little patience for those who actively nurse those feelings—in themselves or others. And I really worry about the prospect of such people running the country.

Our best presidents have not been grudge nurturers, even when their childhoods were difficult. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both grew up in economically strained homes with abusive, alcoholic fathers. Both became famously sunny adults (though Reagan was not above playing on racial anger for political gain). Presidents who have carried around deep ethnic or class resentments, on the other hand, have often been undone by those feelings—think LBJ, Nixon, and now George W. Bush (whose class anger is directed inward, toward the East Coast elite into which he was born).

So, as we look at the field of candidates this year, which ones harbor uncomfortable levels of inner turmoil and resentment? I see none on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton certainly holds right-wing operatives and the Washington press corps in minimal regard. But coming from Park Ridge, Illinois, a standard-issue inner-ring American suburb, she seems to be quite at ease with every rank of American. Barack Obama wrestled with some racial anger as a young man, but that struggle has produced a real uniter, not a divider. John Edwards works the class-outrage angle—and justifiably so, given the country's burgeoning inequality—but he doesn't really do class resentment.

On the GOP side, there's Mike Huckabee, who seems emotionally balanced; Mitt Romney, who only fakes resentment; and John McCain, whose caustic bent seems to derive more from a hot temper than any broader enmity. The only major candidate clearly moved by gut-level tribal loyalties and resentments is Rudy Giuliani. That, I think, is why so many people find the thought of him in the Oval Office so scary.

Any successful politician needs to maintain a healthy awareness of the ethnic, race, and class insecurities that bedevil this great country. When liberals in the past let their awareness slip, they did long-term damage to their own cause—the era of busing that my family lived through being a prime example.

But the real danger today is not liberals ignoring the voters' resentments but conservatives playing to them. Rudy Giuliani is the most worrisome because he shares those resentments. But all the GOP candidates, even those with reasonably healthy psyches, are having to tailor their words and positions to a Republican Party base that is increasingly like Norman Podhoretz—belligerently fearful and aggrieved and thereby prone to horrible judgment. This country can't afford another four years with a president who sees his job as serving the psychic needs of these people.

   

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Paul Glastris is the editor of the Washington Monthly  
 
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