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Our Politics Of Anger

Americans are experts in dissatisfaction. But it could be getting out of control.
March 1, 2010 |
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I used to think it was odd that anger was the operating principle of politics in America, a country that elevates the "pursuit of happiness" to a self-evident right. But then I realized it's happiness itself -- the ill-defined, carrot-on-a-stick nature of it -- that makes us so mad. If our collective goal weren't so lofty (and vague), and if we didn't believe we were entitled to our heart's desire, maybe we could calm down, leave well enough alone and count our blessings.

But that's not how we roll. We leave actual contentment with what is, and God forbid, satisfaction with what we have accomplished, to others -- like, say, the bon vivant French. In America, it's all about trajectory -- not where we're at but where we'll get to next.

In fact, whether we admit it or not, we citizen strivers need anger -- maybe especially political anger -- to keep all this momentum going. Satisfaction might lull us into passivity; dissatisfaction can move us to act. A quick check of most comment boards supports this: You hear mostly from the ticked off.

This is one reason why so much of political activity on all sides is about leveraging, even stoking, our displeasure. Appealing to fury isn't a bad way to get large numbers of people to move in your direction. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Anger can move you to fix whatever's wrong with the state of things. Combined with a redemptive message, it has the possibility of achieving remarkable, positive change. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the process of turning anger into a "transforming force." Even momentary outrage can move legislators to pass necessary laws and change less-than-ideal conditions.

But anger also tends to encourage us to place blame and responsibility for our troubles on others. It can bolster an unhealthy sense of entitlement. What is true for individuals can be true for the collective: Anger uncontrolled can overwhelm us and ultimately make our lives a whole lot worse.

There's no way to prove it, but it seems that American politics is angrier than ever. (You may not agree if you eschew talk radio and cable-TV yammering.) But the increase in partisanship, which surely feeds anger, is provable and explainable: The disappearing cross-party vote in Sacramento or in Washington is a recent phenomenon that can be charted.

Still, it's important to remember that bile and intolerance is nothing new to our political scene. Throughout U.S. history -- in speeches, tracts and sermons -- political players have spewed plenty of horrendous things about their opponents. In the 1790s, for instance, one French visitor to the U.S. found "the violence of opinion" downright "disgraceful."

You might want to blame our divisive political rhetoric on anxiety and uncertain times, but it wouldn't be fair. Studies have shown that anxiety and anger have two very distinct effects on political behavior. Anxiety is a response to a perceived threat over which a person feels little control. In contrast, anger arises as a response to a negative event that a person feels gets in the way of his goals. Anxiety leads people to overestimate risk and do nothing; anger tends to lower one's sense of perceived threat and leads to heightened risk-taking.

In other words, in a democracy, anger gives people a greater sense of control over their fate and spurs them to action, however ill considered. The anger ethos, then, dovetails well with our can-doism and the belief that individuals have control over their own destinies.

My fear is that the 24/7 media feedback loop is changing our anger calculus. Like porn on the Web, political anger is becoming a compulsion. The Joe Stacks of the world -- the ones who are mad as hell and about to fly a plane into an IRS office -- could always find compatriots, but now they can congregate instantly, on a fan page on Facebook, for instance. It's all become too easy, accessible and, in some cases, merely an end in itself.

I'm not concerned that this indulgent anger will produce thousands of Joe Stacks; he was an extreme case. My real worry is that the garden-variety version of this anger will be so virulent and inescapable that it will so alienate other, cooler citizens that they will give up on politics altogether.

I mean, if you're not frothing at the mouth, what are your choices? I see only two: Either leave politics to the furious ones, or get so angry about the state of affairs that you have no choice but to fight back.