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.