Anger Management

The punditry here and in the U.S. is talking more and more about the populist anger afoot and how it is becoming an increasingly powerful political force.  Whether to emulate, repudiate or retaliate, everybody everywhere seems to be watching the Tea Party.  Anger, it seems,  has become the new political battleground.

I don’t want to exaggerate just how much anger there is out there in Canada.  Candidates of diverse political views won in the recent municipal elections and the electorate continues to be deeply divided nationally.  Canada does not seem to have a full-fledged Tea Party nor big money buying populist discontent.  Canadians generally don’t go  for extremes or big drama.  But the pundits are on to something.  In parts of the country at least, anger seems to be brewing here too.  We see this in the suburban Toronto vote.   We see this in the talk about a new Quebec Tea Party.  We see this in how issues such as the firearms registry and the census are handled.  How to address this anger is probably one of the trickier questions facing our political leadership.

Let’s be clear.  There are, today, awfully good reasons to be angry, take your choice: Bailouts of (some but not other) big corporations seem to have all party support but bailouts of families and individuals in trouble not so much.  Wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands.  Economic success is increasingly a reflection of where one starts off in life, a matter of ” inheritance”.  More and more families are living paycheque to paycheque.  We are told that our taxes are too high even as we watch our services erode and learn that the “cupboard is bare”.  We see political advantage trumping the public good and every opposition party pointing out “corruption” with glee and promising a new integrity that never arrives.   Politicians don’t seem to be talking about important things and when they do, such as the risks to the planet, our climate, our water, our food,  they do nothing.  (I know the latter doesn’t make very many of us angry but it should.)

Populist anger is of course nothing new.  Historically,  when anger comes to dominate the political landscape, for example in times of economic hardship and upheaval,  it, like crises, foreshadows great change – for better or for worse.   It is how, from time to time, the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized find their voice and have it heard.  Anger is always risky but can also be constructive, providing the impetus to overcome inertia and the inevitable resistance to transformative change.   This is what thrilled many of us when we watched Poland’s Solidarity movement convert anger into irresistible democratic reform.  When tied to some degree of optimism or at least hope that things can be made better, anger “cools” and can be converted to democratic deliberation and positive collective action.  Bill Moyer and Mary Beth Rogers give some powerful and uplifting examples of social movements driven by what they call  “cold anger”.

Anger has been at the centre of every great advance in democracy.  But anger can also bring out the worst in us. When anger is tied to fear of the future and cynicism it finds expression in blame and envy, villains and victims.  Without some hope about the possibility of progress, anger can easily turn to hate, scapegoating and institution busting or to withdrawal and fatalistic grumbling.  Anger itself has no wings, right or left.  It is energy without direction. Politics can ratchet it up or cool it down; politics can give it direction.

Today, what is most striking about the politics of anger is the absence of a progressive voice.  The politics of anger always presents real difficulties for moderates, parties of the centre-left or centre-right.  We all know how anger can blot out rational argument and contrary evidence and that, rightly, makes moderates nervous.  When anger rises, true conservatives who worry about the unintended consequences of great change and liberals who believe in incremental progress are often at a loss.  They will remind us that we have things pretty good here, that there is a lot to be grateful for,  and there is.  (This isn’t post-Soviet Poland after all.)  They will plead for civility and rationality because enduring progress is impossible otherwise.

But if they ridicule the anger, if they treat it as illegitimate, they deny the experience of those demanding change and, by so doing, they make themselves part of the problem.  We know from our experience that nothing makes us angrier than having our anger ignored or belittled.  That is surely no less true for political anger.   In these days of anger,”progressives” and moderates may, ironically, be viewed as the defenders of things as they are,  vested interests, their own privilege.  If they do not even seek to understand the anger, then little wonder that they are accused of being out of touch, disconnected from everyday life as most people live it.

In contrast, those riding the tide of anger, indeed magnifying rather than simply channeling it, are the “right” (not conservatives in any sense of the word) who do not like government, who want government’s role shrunk to protecting us from external threats and punishing wrongdoers. They are the ones who now represent transformative change.  They offer a clear definition of the problem that captures and stokes the public mood: government and taxes, runaway spending and out-of-touch elites, “illegal” immigrants, criminals and other threats to our safety, whatever the evidence might say.  The rallying cry is freedom and tradition, both important values with real resonance, although, in this context, their meaning seems diminished – “freedom” only economic freedom,  freedom from government, and “tradition” a promise of insulation from change, from all things new and strange.

And progressive politicians seem to have no answer to all of this or, at least, no progressive answer.   They too want to be tough on crime, soft on taxes, silent on inequality and the environment,  the “right’s” agenda but only less so.  Or they just want the anger to go away.  But Canadians, including angry Canadians, deserve a progressive alternative, a progressive definition of the problem, one that is grounded in the evidence and that clarifies our moral choices.  Canadians deserve an alternative that recognizes that, yes, the system is failing the poor and squeezing the middle and that more of the same won’t cut it;   that we are all made weaker when inequality deepens, our environment deteriorates, and our democratic institutions erode; that only through greater equality and democratic revitalisation can citizens retake some measure of control of their lives and their country.   A laissez-faire approach of ever lower taxes and less government simply gives a free reign to the very rich and powerful – but in the end serves no one’s interest.  Yes we do need to reinvent government,  but not to undermine it.  We need to open up government, focus it on what it does best, show the value citizens are getting for their taxes, and challenge citizens to get engaged and share responsibility for the future.

Interesting that the compelling examples of “cold anger” Moyer and Rogers provide come not from government or traditional political parties but from community and church.   Great change almost always finds its impetus outside the conventional political channels.   Whatever the source, Canadians deserve a choice beyond more of the same or less of everything.  Absent a compelling progressive narrative to acknowledge and channel populist anger, the right will continue to ride the tide and the rest will simply try to avoid drowning.   Those who think the anger will just play out and things will go back to how they were are betting against the odds, if history is a guide.

11 Responses to “Anger Management”
  1. This is very, very good Alex. I will get back with my thoughts but you have made some very important points. One of the key points is that emotion is a potent political force and that if progressives don’t get this they will continue to lose (more maddeningly in spite of having more voters in their values camp). This was sort of what I was trying to get at it in my poorly received call for a reverse culture war. But there is another crucial point which you allude to: the resentment underpinning the populist movements is partly based on an accurate sense that “elites” have been doing fine while others haven’t. Over the past couple of decades the middle class has hollowed and disappeared only to be replaced by an economically stagnant and insecure service class. The more secure and better paying jobs of 20-30 years ago ( unionised labour and middle management /organisational men) have given way to personal trainers, chefs, landscapers, event planners and security guards for a new gilded age where the rich and uber rich feel none of the philanthropic impulses of the original gilded age. So rage and insecurity are fueling a new social movement and even class conflict based on disputes of both values and interests where the professional elites are being challenged vigorously. And demography has a lot to do with this as well.
    Frankly, not a very pretty period but all periods of growth , progress and harmony are preceded by periods of intense conflict. At this point there is little evidence of the positive aufhebung that will sublimate and transcend this dialectic (to apply Hegel) but I remain hopeful.

    Frank Graves

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks Frank,, this adds an important dimension. I think you would be interested in Wilkinson’s The Spirit Trap and his data on the consequences of deepening inequality.

  2. B York says:

    Another thoughtful post, Alex. I like how you take your time to provide deeper analysis of what is ailing our society on the political front. It’s a refreshing change in this age of tweet type commentary.

    Anger can be harnessed for both positive and negative change. History has proven that time and again. I spent the afternoon with a friend visiting from DC/Maryland and we touched on the polarized Tea Party Movement, focusing on the anti-immigration/illegal immigration aspect. With the increasing job losses, many due to off-shoring manufacturing and technology jobs, people are looking for scapegoats. What Frank mentions above adds a dimension to this discussion, the new job opportunities are in low-wage service industries with many of the occupations being created by the wealthy elite looking for personal services such as gardeners, nannies, personal trainers and security. But these wealthy families are more than happy to pay bottom prices by employing illegal immigrants. They also create their wealth from investing and/or participating in an economy that is driving enterprise to where the cheapest mass labour can be attained.

    He pointed out that if the illegal immigrants were afforded landed residency/amnesty, they might then feel entitled to demand fair wages and even unionize. In other words, instead of driving down wages or providing labour for ridiculously low wages with no protections, immigrants could be allies in the struggle or the working poor instead of scapegoats. It’s the wealthier class that benefit most from this underground economy. And they should be the target of legitimate anger.

    But you’re right that the moderate left or right have completely lost their voices. They have no idea on how to inform and direct this growing frustration and anger. Parroting hard right positions with a softer edge is not cutting it because anger demands more. Anger demands honesty.

    • The reason I posted this video is that the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” that was recently held in Washington DC is PROOF that the extremists have not wholly won out over the political processes in America. 215 000 people showed up, hoping to throw themselves behind a centrist message of cooperation and moving forward.

      The problem seems to be that more often than not, the extremists are far more vocal than the centrist majority. They are far more involved in the political landscape, and therefore propagate the illusion of being more numerous, but the fact remains that in reality, they are not.

      I believe that the main problem which plagues the centrist majority in the USA as well as here in Canada, is apathy. They do not participate for a myriad of reasons, from being too busy trying to live their lives and make ends meet, to plain not being motivated enough to lend their voice to the centrist message of finding a middle ground and trying to work together.

      However, as I mentioned in my response to the blog post on “Elitism”, I believe that there is still a great deal of hope to be found. The extremists, despite their vocal involvement in many issues, do not dominate all of the political stage. They do not always dictate policy. They do not always get their way.

      There is still a great deal of hope, we must never forget that. We must not simply submit to despair, because that is what lets these extremists on both sides of the political spectrum gain ground.

      • himelfarb says:

        thanks Jonathan. I totally agree as a matter of priciple that hope should always trump despair – otherwise we have no chance at all to make things better. As for the rest I think apathy is just a name we give to what is happening but i don’t think it is really an explanation. Is it a sense of powerlessness, indifference, self-absorption, or cynicism about government or the prospects for positive collective action? As for this silent majority you are talking about, well, I hope so.

    • himelfarb says:

      You migjt notice that if you click on retaliate in the post, I link to the rally, which i too take to be a positive sign. I am glad you posted the video.

  3. RG says:

    Great piece. A thought…Ultimately I think the death of organizations (unions et al) has muted progressive voices or if you want anger. Roots of good social change require one massive voice that is difficult to re-produce. Some say that the internet can make it easier to organize but the reality is that the best organization comes at work meetings where the difficulties are ‘fresh’. I can write angry articles online and call on others to join me but that moment is somewhat lost after I click the publish button.

    • himelfarb says:

      This is a really important issue. Some people have talked about “click politics” or “click engagement” to get at how easy it is to click on a thumbs up and consider one’s civic duty met. I think that the potential of social media is as yet untested and if you click on each of the words “whatever the source” in the post, you will see three examples of internet-fostered movements of very different sorts. Nonetheless your point is an important one. I am more and more of the view that when governments ended stable core funding to voluntary organizations, including advocacy organizations, democracy paid a huge price. Today many of these organizations seem to be extensions of government and may be reluctant to speak out. In the past they gave voice to those excluded or on the margins of conventional channels. This combined with more generous tax rules for advocacy could help to address the problem you raise, a small investment for revitalising our democracy. Thanks for raising the issue here.

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