An Oligarchy of Sob Stories

Emmet Penney
7 min readDec 11, 2020
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

2020 was a year of few winners. Jeff Bezos was one, whose wealth grew from $74 to $189 billion over the course of the year. Elon Musk saw similar gains. Joe Biden won, of course, and somehow. And it was a banner year for the sob story.

The sob story serves one of the many ploys in the conman’s kit. And for good reason: it confers sympathy upon the teller. But that’s just the beginning. All successful sleights rely on misdirection. By plying you with a sob story, the conman successfully diverts your attention from his actions. Because once you’ve gained someone’s sympathy you’ve crossed the border into the land of victimhood. And victims, as many see it, are innocent.

How could a victim have done anything wrong? When bad things happen to bad people, that’s justice. But bad things happening to good people? Well, that’s a crime.

That’s the misdirection. Here’s the trick: now you can do whatever you want. Sob stories distinguish themselves from more banal corruptions like hypocrisy because they grant permission. They provide cover for whatever the conman wants to pull off.

If anyone asks questions, they’re quickly met with, “How dare you imply someone so wounded/wrongfully reviled/cheated might be up to something!” The pity of others writes you a blank check.

The sob story has become a basic element of our politics. This year we saw a flowering of moral license with sob stories playing handmaiden. No side or class has resisted the temptation. Whoever wants to be seen as righteous must first tell a sob story.

Take Trump. The MAGA Chad enlisted to restore nationalism and own the libs. Trump’s a uniquely gifted bully. The phrase “goofy Elizabeth Warren” still makes me laugh. He played for keeps during the 2016 election.

And when he took office, his supporters likely expected him to go after East Asian firms who’ve taken advantage of America’s trade structures, bring back manufacturing, and “drain the swamp.”

Instead, Trump welcomed a bullshit manufacturing jobs deal with the Taiwanese firm Foxconn and screwed tech workers. He did raise tariffs against China, but offshoring increased during his tenure. Likely, as Pedro Gonzalez of American Greatness suggests, because Trump’s tax cuts encouraged the trend. As for the swamp, Trump’s various emoluments violations that allowed him to spot weld his presidency to his businesses made him crocodile-in-chief.

Nationalist populism indeed.

Of course, if you’re a supporter or even a casual observer, you can be forgiven for not noticing. Trump put his alpha status to good use crying about media coverage. It’s not that his gripes about the media censoring him and being mean to him aren’t true. That’s not the point.

The point is that Trump got to shirk accountability by crying foul. The big dog had no plan for…well, anything. Not even the institutional pushback any dummy could have told you was coming after he ran as the big swinging dick in the room.

So, when it came time for re-election he had to play the sob story game. Oh, they’re so mean to me. That must mean I’m good, right folks? Even though I’ve delivered on nothing? He sold his worth to voters on the premise of little more than the fact that he’s the victim of establishment scorn. The scorn aided and abetted his dishonesty. And it will win him sainthood in perpetuity among his most devout followers as he enters the pantheon of American sissies alongside Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Cabot “La-de-dah” Lodge.

Let’s return to the Senator From MBNA, our president-elect, Joe Biden. Or rather, to his sons, Beau the Lion and Hunter the Other One. Beau was a military veteran who died of cancer in 2015. Hunter, who seems to have reaped all the benefits of his father’s connections, powerfully and publicly struggles with drug addiction.

For a father, both likely invite a deep familiarity with the tragic sense of life. Both bring a wincing pain, though of different kinds. And they are, for an enterprising politician, great assets. How?

They made Biden’s run of the mill corruption — getting lucrative makework jobs for his deadbeat son to increase his own international leverage — unassailable. That’s why we’ve heard, “God, how hard it must be for a father…he seems like such a kind man…His life has been so full of loss…” instead of questions like “Why does Biden’s fuck up son keep getting jobs at a foreign fossil fuel company in his father’s area of international interest as Vice President? Or a credit card company his father is cozy with? Or on the board of Amtrak? And all of this when he has no experience in any of these industries to speak of?”

When he won the presidency, CNN published a piece entitled, “The Triumphant Grief of Joe Biden.” That’s the power of a good sob story. You can be a senator for decades and Vice President for eight years, but you become president because people pity you. Expect zero resistance going forward. He’s earned his permission slip.

Sympathy stems from recognizing another’s pain. We witness their suffering, remember our own suffering, and see them as nearer to us than before. But pain isn’t moral or immoral. It’s one of life’s givens. It’s typical, which is why it’s easy to relate to. But that’s also why it can’t serve as a standard for someone’s moral worth. Everyone suffers, the good and the bad alike.

But, as I’ve argued, the sob story seeks to take advantage of other’s sympathy and head off any skepticism or debate. Thus, in politics, it undermines foundational elements of democracy by replacing public reason and common standards with emotivism and double-standards.

About forty years ago, Alisdair MacIntyre explored what he called the “culture of emotivism” wherein people use moral language to manipulate others’ attitudes, choices, and ideas towards the speakers’ pragmatic ends. It’s anchored in the pathetic appeal. It doesn’t matter what’s actually just, what matters is what feels just.

Once ethics gets reduced to feelings alone, then the possibility for non-coercive political speech forecloses. You’re no longer talking about principles, you’re talking about personalities. And then things devolve into an endless Rube-Golberg machine of people trying to get one over on each other.

There goes public reason.

And if political debate amounts to little more than emotional coercion used to excuse political actors from responsibility, then common standards go too.

This is fatal to democracy. As Christopher Lasch pointed out, “Societies organized around a hierarchy of privilege can afford multiple standards, but a democracy cannot. Double standards mean second-class citizenship.”

Sob stories are the American aesthetic of double standards.

The drift from democratic discourse began at the top with a shift away from democracy towards oligarchy. Over time, American elites shaped our society to enrich themselves and entrench their interests while letting the rest of the country drift.

Now they’ve seemingly decoupled themselves from the broader interests of the nation-state that supplies their high station. Once that became a permanent part of elite self-interest, a new telos emerged. We have trended toward double-standards, a tiered legal system, extreme inequality, and, at last, the common standards that provide the groundwork for democracy.

And now that we live in an oligarchy, we’re all fluent in its language. That’s why the sob story works on a grand scale. I can’t be alone in noticing this is how we all speak about politics. If we aren’t virtue signaling with our own sob story, we’re vicariously sharing impunity by defending another’s. The media, of course, has flourished in these conditions and has committed itself to exacerbating the lucrative problem.

Moreover, we’ve living after the eclipse of what Toure F. Reed calls “public interest governance,” the political standard of the FDR-era. We simply don’t believe there’s a such thing as “the public” anymore. “The masses,” sure. “The public” as a vector for infection, definitely. But as a political concept, America abandoned it during the Cold War and opted for interest-group politics instead, each sect warring for access to the treasure box of the state. Now, everyone fights for an oligarchy of their own to represent them.

The old moral language of equality, dignity, and a shared society has been upended and emptied. We think in terms of exception, opportunism, and advantage while we invoke yesterday’s values. It’s true that those values often greatly exceeded our reality. So, it’s not that things were once wonderful — I’m not a nostalgist — it’s that things have gotten worse.

To turn back the tide against our maturing oligarchy, some sort of political force from below must cohere. Its success will rely on much more than simply resurrecting an honest civic vocabulary for concepts like the public, common standards, and equality, though it will need such a discourse. It will need to call corruption and oligarchy what they are and abstain from the sob story game altogether.

Unfortunately, 2020 offers no guidance.

It was the tunnel at the end of the light.