How the Political Right Harnesses Victimhood

Privilege is the sin that must be checked so that the marginalized can continue their long march to freedom. In an empathetic society, victimhood and powerlessness becomes its own kind of power. A large part of understanding these processes lies in the power of victimhood. These identities are placeholders for suffering and signs of the justice of one’s cause. We need to distinguish between victimhood itself and the politics of victimhood – the process whereby suffering is fabricated or conferred, and then ‘weaponized’ for political purposes. That all makes it difficult territory for progressives, who believe real injustice happens every day and should be highlighted and resolved. Progressives must remain cognizant about the allure of victimhood politics. Today we have identity politics of aggressively competing victimhoods, in which groups of people, based on religious, national, ethnic, sexual, or whatever else identity they chose, demand to have their victimhood status recognized and something done about it.

The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis is that so far, populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one. The final ignominy is that, as victimhood becomes a political commodity, it will only be accrued by those with power already to advance their cause, probably at the cost of those that really do need help and advocacy. Genuine injustice is already being hidden underneath the jumble of confected grievance. When a population fails to acknowledge the humanity of another population, the certain result is victimhood: they took our jobs; they are changing our society; they don’t follow our customs. Under the dangerous allure of victim politics, this attitude, like a virus, snowballs into populism. Populism is the new victimhood. The gap between Trump’s rhetoric and his policies is not all that uncommon for populists. In Latin America, for example, many populist leaders who campaigned one way governed another.

Populists turn to identity politics, and in the process, become a new elite. But as Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde observes, populists, the self-appointed vox populi (voice of all the people), are intolerant and will attack those with a different view, claiming such as person represents “special interests,” and is therefore part of what they consider to be the elite. The result: The end-of-history assumption that liberal democracy was the final point of progress has been disrupted as religious and other identities stubbornly persist, and continue to drive events. Recently, Francis Fukuyama describes the historical background of the middle class, bringing us to the troublesome present in which the stability of the middle class is in question. He suggests that we need a new political and economic ideology that “could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle-class societies and robust democracies.”1

Micro and macro identities are rooted in the political and the personal – in ideologies, gender, sexuality, ability and dis-ability, ethnicity and myriad others in combination. These identities are not invented, but they are continually emphasized. It seems it’s no longer enough simply to be a citizen – you now have to have an identity. Ian Buruma thought people liked to feel like society’s victims, even where they were personally doing rather well, because modern life hollows out our identities. The age of instant gratification of hyper-capitalism is reducing meaningful beliefs and identity to fast food restaurants, sterile movies and empty gestures. But people want and perhaps need the authentic, the real, and the genuine in life. And so in an external world in which everything seems so empty, we turn inward in a search for authenticity. The only thing that can deliver authenticity is our feelings. And what more powerful feeling is there than victimhood and struggle?2

Feelings have become something of a modern obsession. Many think that people’s feelings are fast becoming the only test of whether something should be allowed. Prioritizing feelings invariably means that if those precious feelings are hurt, upset, or offended, then these things should be banned or stopped. Since everyone can find a way to feel oppressed, either historically, vicariously or presently, how someone feels about something should not be the sole arbiter of how decisions are made. This sets up a loop – women feel oppressed by men; men’s rights activists feel oppressed by feminists; and on and on and on in a never ending and renewable cycle. Arguing over degrees of victimhood replaces moral reasoning, since victims aren’t always right. This can be used as justification for bad behaviour. Skillful populist demagogues have exploited this aspect of feelings to appeal to voters.

Until now, Donald Trump has played the grievance game with his mostly white, male base by fanning flames of resentment and fear aimed at nonwhites. He’s dreamed up an illegal immigration tidal wave, blamed crime on non-native-born Americans, claims jobs are being lost to foreigners, paints multiethnic cities as war zones and championed the causes of white evangelicals who feel victimized if forced to comply with anti-discrimination laws protecting gays. The notion that whites are systematically discriminated against is unsupported and unsupportable in a country where whites still enjoy advantages over nonwhites in education, wealth, life span and virtually every other metric. More recently he is emphasizing the “male” part of the white male victimhood. Trump and the self-pitying male segment of his base would have us believe their cultural, social, economic and political dominance is being unfairly taken away.

No one really consciously chooses to be a victim. It is more a way we fall into, and we fall into it because, it works. It becomes a strategy to deal with life – whether it is staying safe in one’s comfort zone, numbing oneself, finding company, getting attention, avoiding being responsible for something in one’s life, etc. The attention, sympathy and time that a person can get from victimhood is validation that they really are a good person and if circumstances were just different, they would obviously be thriving. It’s a way to “save face” in the midst of any kind of failure. Because this mindset has been a well-practiced pattern, it will take consistent follow up to help establish a new way of seeing the world and acting within it. The response includes not only the phenomenon of actually being a victim, but also living a life with a victim mindset (an attitude or disposition that predetermines a person’s view, response to and interpretations of situations).

By dividing people into groups, populists are able to easily manipulate people. If as a group you’ve been taught you’re a part of the ‘victim’ of an affront, it’s easy to rile you up. Progressives want a society which, generally speaking, recognizes there are victims in society (both individuals and groups); that things aren’t fair; that some groups – on the basis of historical circumstance, current economic status, deep rooted prejudice or whatever – have a life that’s harder and opportunities fewer than we would like. Progressives must focus on problems and then ask the right questions. Their values become a compass or guide to helping them achieve their goals and adopting character. President Trump’s tax plan has helped businesses and investors more than wage earners. This creates structural inequality. Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest employer at 1.4 million. Unfortunately, it has set new standards for reducing employee pay and benefits. Its competitors must follow suit to provide the same ‘Low Prices.’3

The neoliberal version of globalization has not brought more rapid economic growth, reduced poverty, or made economies more stable. Inequality is recast as virtuous. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. This era of unfettered markets has come to an end with the rise of nationalism. Populists are tapping into the crisis of neoliberalism. Right-wing nationalism seems to be crafted to win electoral victories at the intersection of protectionist and xenophobic sentiments. Progressives must now focus on nationalism along with Trump’s version of crony capitalism. Economic nationalism is logical if you believe that stagnation will last a long time, creating a zero-sum or even a negative-sum game. But the projects of economic nationalism are destined to fail. The long-term solution actually includes basic guaranteed income, as well as, enforcing competition among the rent-seeking monopolies in order to force the price of their goods so low that people can survive scarce and precarious work.

If victimhood is the feeding ground of populists, then its antidote is agency, driven by empowering information, institutional access, intersectional voice and programmatic purpose. Health care is often considered one of the three pillars of social policy, along with education and social welfare/income security. Health care must be set up with national standards and as a public good paid for with tax dollars rather than a private good for sale. Rather than pressuring the poorest people in a society to find their own solutions to their lack of health care, education and social security, these must be part of the public good. We need particularly to turn young people into agents of their own destiny before they are embedded in victimhood. Start by enacting policies like universal health care and free college, and ousting the private-prison industry from the justice system, while taking power and diffusing it at the same time.

1 Paul Bickley (11 Aug 2016) How cynical populism has created a culture of victimhood politics.

2 Jamie Bartlett. The dangerous allure of victim politics.       

3 Kimberly Amadeo. (10 Oct 2018) Income Inequality in America. Causes of Income Inequality.

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