Depending on social and political dynamics, the pain associated with feeling devalued can lead to social progress or decay. When civil rights activists organized to pass legislation to advance the well-being of Blacks, and when people with disabilities advocated for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, social progress was achieved. These were fights for fairness mounted by people without power. But when certain groups in power feel threatened, instead of creating bridges of belonging they erect walls of exclusion. Instead of extending wellness to all, they hoard opportunities. They are quick to abandon bridging social capital in favor of extreme bonding. When that happens, we end up with populist nationalism, xenophobia, prejudice and racial intolerance.
As Francis Fukuyama claimed in his 2018 book Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment, “demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today. It is not confined to the identity politics practiced on university campuses, or to the white nationalism it has provoked, but extends to broader phenomena such as the upsurge of old-fashioned nationalism.” By his own analysis, there are two main forces converging on the rise of nationalism: economic inequality and the politics of resentment. The economic recession of 2008, occasioned by the reckless practices of the elite, resulted in economic displacement of many. Around the globe people lost their homes, their jobs, and their dignity. But instead of directing their anger towards the source of the problem — the captains of the financial industrial complex – the victims of the recession, aided and abated by opportunistic political leaders, blamed foreigners. Instead of questioning the very system that led to catastrophic results, and holding their leaders accountable, aggrieved groups turned their anger towards immigrants and minorities.
Many people like Trump used the time-honored tradition of deflecting blame onto scapegoats and powerless groups. Fukuyama noted: “This might be called the politics of resentment. In a wide variety of cases, a political leader has mobilized followers around the perception that the group’s dignity had been affronted, disparaged, or otherwise disregarded. This resentment engenders demands for public recognition of the dignity of the group in question. A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity carries far more emotional weight than people simply pursuing their economic advantage.”
The two most recent examples of nationalistic surge were the election of Donald Trump and Brexit. But global instances abound: The National Front in France, the Alternative for Germany, the Freedom Party in Austria, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. When it comes to populist leaders, Putin in Russia, Erdoğan in Turkey, Orbán in Hungary and Duterte in the Philippines join Trump in the league of nationalists. Fukuyama makes it clear that in all these cases, the leaders fomented politics of resentment by telling followers that their dignity has been trampled upon by foreigners, minorities, or other countries. What all these illustrations demonstrate is that feeling devalued can lead to deleterious consequences for society as a whole, especially when resentment is fueled for political purposes. Throughout history, we have seen how masses can be manipulated into acquiescence and hatred. When inequality of means meets inequality of respect, we end up with a volatile situation.