The Grievance Lobby
How the culture of victimhood translates to Texas politics.
I’d like to begin the new year by offering a comment on the ongoing national debate over America’s emerging “culture of victimhood.” The phrase was offered midway through the year by a pair of sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who argued that the ferocious debate over “microaggressions” that are supposedly sweeping American college campuses reflects an emerging order in which victims enjoy a privileged status—and in which victimhood itself is being incentivized. Their argument has elicited some pushback, mostly from the left. For a snapshot of where things stand, I’d recommend last weekend’s op-ed from Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, warning about the consequences of the culture of victimhood; and a piece by New York’s Jesse Singal, who argues that Brooks et al are wildly overreacting to a phenomenon mostly seen in “ultralow-stakes blog posts.”
I understand where Singal is coming from. It’s unduly alarmist to judge any movement by its most vocal supporters on the Internet. Further, it would be fair to consider whether some critiques of the “culture of victimhood” are ideologically motivated. In any political or cultural movement you can find people who are being luridly hysterical, hyperbolic, invidious, or inane. Focusing on those examples, to the exclusion of the people making a measured argument about the issue at hand, is intellectually dishonest.
With all of that said, I’m inclined to agree with Brooks that the trend at hand is real and worth taking seriously. I hadn’t heard about the “culture of victimhood” until September, when social psychologist Jonathan Haidt highlighted the paper in which the sociologists laid out their theory. Prior to that I had heard references to “microaggressions”—and “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the like—but I hadn’t taken them particularly seriously. Still, I intuitively understood what the sociologists were describing; as I wrote then, their theory struck me as “ominously plausible.” The “culture of victimhood,” as Campbell and Manning explained it, was suspiciously similar to the trend that I had been writing about ad nauseam for more than a year, and had summarized, in August, as “the politics of grievance.”
Since then, I’ve come to see the two phenomena as flip sides of the same coin. At first glance, the parallels might not be obvious—especially to conservatives, who tend to be derisive of “microaggressions” and other symbols of the culture of victimhood. But there are interesting structural similarities between college campuses and Texas Republican primaries. Campbell and Manning write that the culture of victimhood is not solely the result of people being oppressed or victimized (or perceiving themselves as such). Rather, it arises when people feel victimized and when concurrent social conditions “promote case-building attempts to attract third parties”—that is, when people have the tools to air their concerns in public, and when there is some practical purpose to doing so.
That’s why, in their account, college campuses have become America’s epicenter of microaggressions. Students have access to public platforms—microaggression websites—where students may report their experiences without directly confronting their antagonists. University communities are culturally predisposed to take concerns about social justice seriously; they are also governed by policies that set relatively stringent standards of civility, compared to the world at large, and led by authorities who are predisposed to sympathize with the victims. Social conditions would similarly explain why Texas Republican primaries are so receptive to conservatives with arcane grievances. Conservatives can air their concerns in safe spaces, such as Twitter, the comments section of Breitbart (or even this blog), or Dan Patrick’s Facebook page. They are part of a community that collectively believes that conservatives are being systematically oppressed, marginalized, or disappointed by a perfidious Republican establishment. Further, the conservative community is governed by promises, scorecards and pledges, and led by officials and advocates who are predisposed to take up their cause.
Haidt’s own work helps explain why it would make sense for feelings of victimhood to manifest, on the right, as the type of complaints that I summarized as grievances. In his book, The Righteous Mind, he argues that the fundamental division between Democrats and Republicans is about moral worldviews, rather than policy preferences. Specifically, he argues, the left prioritizes caring; the right, by contrast, emphasizes values including personal responsibility and rule of law. This disjunct would explain why conservatives are so unsympathetic to concerns about microaggressions and calls for safe spaces, and why, in contrast to far left college students, they would frame their own feelings as matters of manly, principled grievances.
And that brings me to a potentially disturbing distinction between “the culture of victimhood” and “the politics of grievance.” I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the different implications of those phrases. There’s obviously a lot of overlap between the concepts—in August, writing about the latter, I opined that Trump was “casting himself as the victim”—and since I’m a journalist who was trying to summarize a trend in politics, it makes sense that I would describe it in terms of politics rather than culture. All the same, I think it’s worth noting that people who claim victim status are typically making appeals to moral sentiment. They aren’t necessarily entitled, even in theory, to formal redress. Their purpose, in some cases, may simply be to seek sympathy or support; as one Yale student put it, notoriously, “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain.”
People with grievances, by contrast, are typically making more abstract claims about rules, principles, and rights. Consciously or not, they often end up asserting that their preferences have an irreducible legitimacy. It stands to reason that they are more likely to pursue their causes in the political arena. And in practice, a lot of them do so. The politics of grievance had a profound impact on the 84th Legislature. There was the seemingly interminable open carry debate, in which activists saw themselves as fighting “tyrants to the Constitution.” There was the Tea Party backlash to Greg Abbott’s proposal to expand the state’s extant, fully voluntary pre-K program: “This interference by the State tramples upon our parental rights.” There was that time Jimmy Don Aycock pulled down his school finance bill, which would have affected more than five million children in Texas public schools, because Cecil Bell was insistent that his bill, a bit of empty theater related to gay marriage, deserved a hearing: “I recognize that we don’t live in a theocracy. So what we’re talking about here is the sovereign rights of the states.” Even the property tax measure I was so disgusted by was cast as a matter of principle by many of the red-blooded conservatives who voted for it–“relief” for the hardworking taxpayers. (For the record, if any of you are reading: The state of Texas didn’t force you to take out a mortgage. Congratulations on your government handout.) All of that was before Donald Trump even announced his campaign for president, in June. He remains the frontrunner, in national polls, and as I wrote this summer, his campaign is all about grievances.
So I understand where Singal and others are coming from. The nation doesn’t seem to be suffering any spillover violence from these Tumblr fights against microaggressions. The hypersensitivity of today’s college students might be self-correcting. But looking over last year in Texas politics, I’d warn that concerns about the culture of victimhood, and its various manifestations, aren’t necessarily academic. It’s not clear to me whether grievances, once legitimated, ever really go away–or whether people with grievances can ever be mollified, even after they’ve successfully demanded that the state’s political leaders prioritize their problems, and give them a pillow. As of January 1st, open carry is legal in Texas. Some gun-rights supporters have weighed in on Dan Patrick’s Facebook page, to thank him for fighting for their cause, as he clearly did, at the expense of his own stated priorities. But others have put the lieutenant governor on notice: We The People grudgingly accept the efforts he has made thus far as a tribute they rightfully deserve. But as far as they are concerned, the Second Amendment guarantees the right to constitutional carry, which is essentially unlicensed open carry. He’d better come back, in 2017, ready to redeem himself.