The Politics of Anger: You Mad, Donald?

The Politics of Anger: You Mad, Donald?

There are stories that are so surprising, titillating, or scandalous that journalists call them “too good to check.” While this is not a practice that will earn a reporter a Tim Gunn save, it is one that is understandable in an industry in which news is shaped as much to sell as to inform. 

Political scientists have their own version of stories that are too good to check.  These are the tales that make one’s point so effectively that to let “stubborn facts” depose them would be to turn political science into a long train of data and regressions, invariably pursuing the same soul-deadening object.

My favorite political story of this type is told about President Harry Truman during his 1948 presidential campaign. It seems that at one stop on his famous 30,000-mile whistle stop tour of the United States, Truman was confronted by a conspicuously ill-tempered voter. This man proceeded to harangue Truman for several minutes, gesticulating so wildly and producing such a volume of spittle that the Secret Service would have intervened if Truman had not waved them off. When Truman finally extricated himself from this demon, he grasped the hand of Charlie Ross, his press secretary, who pulled him back into his railway carriage. When Truman had finally steadied himself, he turned to Ross and said in a flat voice, “I guess we’ll mark him down as undecided.”

Anger has been part of American politics since the founding of the republic. In the 19th century, the invective was hurled, for the most part, by partisan newspapers, many of which were financed by federal officials who ladled out lucrative government printing contracts to publishers. In return, the publishers launched bilious attacks on their patrons’ political opponents. One of the more understated attacks on Thomas Jefferson that an opposition newspaper ran in 1800 claimed that if Jefferson were elected president, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” Jefferson responded by revoking the editorialist’s season pass to Six Flags Monticello. 

American politics has changed dramatically since the time when Jefferson was ostensibly watering his plants with baby tears and the blood of innocent patriots. We now have a nonpartisan press that believes that it has a responsibility to inform rather than inflame the electorate; our parties (at least in principle) accept that the opposition is legitimate and thus, should a misguided electorate choose to support the other party, the losers will not seek to crush their political enemies and see them driven before them. Political candidates believe that attacks are best left to surrogates who are willing to get soiled so that the candidate can traffic in what a former president called “the vision thing.” 

Scientists know, however, that in every good paradigm there is an anomaly. Ours is named Trump. Well, that is the simple interpretation. The more complex, and—perhaps for some—troubling, interpretation is that Trump is not anomalous at all. He is instead the inevitable consequence of the curdling of our politics, a process that some trace back to the 1970s when Vietnam and Watergate sparked steep declines in Americans’ trust and confidence in political institutions. Others believe it began with what the Clinton White House called “the politics of personal destruction” that reached its climax with the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998. Still others pinpoint the particularly rancid brand of partisan polarization that followed the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the influx of Tea Party members into Congress in 2010.  One group of political scientists has even argued that partisanship has become such an “affective” or emotion-laden political and social identity during the Obama era that partisans in this country see members of the other party as a despised “out-group” – the members of which not only have unappealing political beliefs, but are also less intelligent, more selfish, and less honest. In short, “the mere act of identifying with a political party is sufficient to trigger negative evaluations of the opposition” – such evaluations that are so uncharitable that intermarriage is increasingly being understood as that rare union of a Democrat and a Republican.

Anger is not, however, always pernicious. The Bible is replete with examples of “righteous anger,” in which prophets inveigh against the exploitation of the poor, the practice of usury, and sundry other actions that violate the golden rule. Our politics also sports examples of righteous anger.  John McCain’s demand that the American public be fully informed about interrogation policies that “intentionally disregarded” the “values that define our nation” is a particularly arresting example of a politician standing athwart a dubious policy and yelling, “Stop!” This kind of righteous anger can fix our attention, prompt us to think more carefully, and drive us to take action that we would consider too costly if we were in a less choleric state. 

A politics drained of anger would be a politics that could not generate a Pure Food and Drug Act or a National Labor Relations Act or a Civil Rights Act or an Affordable Care Act. And a politics drained of anger would preclude us from continuing to debate whether even such significant legislative interventions are enough to solve the persistent problems they seek to address.  

We should hence not be too quick to condemn Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or any other candidates who act out of anger. But we should also bear in mind that not all anger is righteous anger. As the modern prophet Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his oft-referenced homily, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” those whose wrath drives them to depict others as “disease-ridden caricatures” often find that the face looking up at them from their sketchpad is their own.

 

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