Populism and the Politics of Resentment

41 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2018

See all articles by Jean Cohen

Jean Cohen

Columbia University - Department of Political Science

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: April 3, 2018


This article argues that understanding the dangers and risks of authoritarian populism in consolidated constitutional democracies requires analysis of the forms of pluralism and status anxieties that emerge in civil society, in a context of profound political, socio-economic and cultural change. This paper has two basic theses. The first is that when civil societies become deeply divided, and segmental pluralism maps onto party political polarization, generalized social solidarity is imperiled, as is commitment to democratic norms, social justice and liberal constitutionalism. The second, is that populist political entrepreneurs excel in fomenting social antagonisms by framing shifts in the forms of social pluralism in ways that foster deep political polarization, generalized distrust and a politics of resentment against ‘elites’, ‘the establishment’ and ‘outsiders’. Why populist offers resonate requires a social theoretical analysis of status/solidarity issues and a direct response to them. I navigate between two inadequate approaches: that of the Hofstadter consensus school which construes status concerns and populism as retrograde, anti-modern, paranoid and meriting no direct response; and that of the neo-Marxist tradition that acknowledges the mobilizing power of ‘cultural factors’ and status anxieties but deems them to be epiphenomena of the deeper story of economic distributive injustice. Both approaches focus on the ‘rational” dimension of material interest and see status anxieties as inevitably bound up with reactionary politics of resentment. I reject this assessment and seek to take up the status/solidarity issues in ways that take them seriously, challenge populist framing and provide alternative direct responses to them.

Keywords: Populism, social status, segmental pluralism, affective political polarization, politics of resentment, electoral authoritarianism

Suggested Citation

Cohen, Jean, Populism and the Politics of Resentment (April 3, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3155389 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3155389

Jean Cohen (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Department of Political Science ( email )

7th Floor, International Affairs Bldg.
420 W. 118th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States

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