Home Society & Culture Reactionism, Ressentiment, and Collective Narcissism Drive Grievance Politics, Reveals New Study

Reactionism, Ressentiment, and Collective Narcissism Drive Grievance Politics, Reveals New Study

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A new study by Tereza Capelos and colleagues from the University of Southampton has identified a psychological framework termed the “anti-social triad of grievance politics”. This triad – comprising reactionism, ressentiment, and collective narcissism – sheds light on the underpinnings of contemporary populist movements and their appeal in democratic societies.

The study, published in the American Behavioral Scientist, integrates insights from psychology, psychoanalysis, and political sociology to present a comprehensive model. According to the authors, the triad consists of three interrelated components:

  • Reactionism. This is characterised by a nostalgic desire to revert to past political and social norms. Unlike conservatism, which aims to maintain the status quo, reactionism seeks to resurrect older, familiar ways of life. This orientation is marked by a resistance to change and a preference for security and tradition over innovation and new experiences.
  • Ressentiment. Defined as a chronic and embittered emotional mechanism, ressentiment arises from feelings of envy, shame, and inefficacious anger. It is a response to the perceived inability to achieve or retain something valued, often resulting in a transformation of values and self-perception. This emotional state underpins reactionism by fuelling a sense of moral victimhood and bitterness .
  • Collective narcissism. This psychological state involves an exaggerated, yet unstable, collective self-esteem. Individuals with collective narcissism harbour a deep-seated insecurity about their group’s worth, which they compensate for through defensive pride and hostility towards out-groups. This state is closely linked to both reactionism and ressentiment, as it amplifies the sense of grievance and victimhood within a group .

To test their theoretical model, Capelos et al. conducted a survey of 489 English residents. The survey measured political orientations, emotional responses to politics, and personal values. Key metrics included scales for reactionism, ressentiment, and collective narcissism, along with questions on authoritarianism and populist attitudes.

The findings revealed significant correlations among the components of the triad. Reactionism was associated with traditional values and a reluctance towards new experiences, while ressentiment correlated with low social trust, envy, and a sense of powerlessness. Collective narcissism was linked to nostalgic and reactionary political views, further entrenching the embittered emotionality characteristic of ressentiment.

According to the study, the anti-social triad provides a valuable lens for understanding the psychological roots of populist movements. Populism, often characterised by anti-elitism and a people-versus-elite dichotomy, resonates with the dynamics of the triad. Reactionism’s retrospective values and ressentiment’s bitter emotionality contribute to the populist appeal, particularly in times of social and economic uncertainty.

The authors caution against oversimplifying populism as merely a right-wing phenomenon. While the triad’s components are prominent in right-wing populism, left-wing populism also shares elements of these psychological mechanisms. For instance, movements like Spain’s Podemos demonstrate how populist sentiments can be driven by feelings of hope and solidarity, contrasting with the bitterness and victimhood seen in right-wing populism .

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