The angry tone of contemporary politics shuts down many conversations before they begin. People don’t want to expose themselves to the bottled brine that is passed around as though it were sparkling wit. Enjoying the company of acquaintances who espouse political opinions that differ from one’s own is a civilized art fast fading from backyard barbeques and park benches—and nearly extinct in op-ed pages. The deftness required in ribbing the other guy and responding in good humor when he ribs you has been replaced by callow mockery, sneering self-righteousness, and annihilating fury.
Describing today’s vitriolic political rhetoric, Alan Wolfe recently invoked the 18th-century pamphleteers who warmed up the American public for the Revolution and their 19th-century successors who struggled to define the character of the Republic:
We had partisanship even before we had parties. Our framers warned against the dangers of faction because we so rarely stood together. If you prefer your invective unseasoned by decorum, check out what the anti-Federalists had to say about the Constitution or how Whigs treated ‘King Andrew’ Jackson.
Mud-flinging and apocalyptic pronouncements are key ingredients in the American political tradition. But Wolfe is only half right. Then as now, political diatribes could be wildly over-the-top. Righteous anger was on display, and the polemicists could seem distempered. But the pamphleteers lacked the elaborate self-centeredness of today’s media-savvy screech owls. They offered arguments—wobbly, overstated, and tedious —but arguments nonetheless. Nowhere did they resort to today’s familiar conceit in which the writer says, in effect, “I am right because I am personally very, very angry.”
A New Anger has added to the mix an I-hate-therefore-I-am smugness. Here are the opening lines of Jonathan Chait’s pivotal article, “Mad about You,” which appeared in September 2003 in The New Republic:
I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it. I think his policies rank him among the worst presidents in U.S. history. And, while I am tempted to leave it at that, the truth is that I hate him for less substantive reasons, too. I hate the inequitable way he has come to his economic and political achievements and his utter lack of humility…
Outright Bush-hatred was already well established on the fringes of the American Left, but mainstream commentators held back out of a slight and lingering sense of decorum. Chait’s essay announced that it was now permissible, perhaps even “responsible,” for the Left to embrace its hatred publicly.
Like swimmers pushing off a wall as they turn to do another lap, angry Democrats routinely touch on the era of Clinton-bashing. Recalling the nasty treatment of Clinton provides an extra thrust for the next lap of flailing against Bush. But an account of the angry Right and the angry Left that treats their antics as merely the contemporary version of the age-old spoiled-sportsmanship of American politics is too blunt. Something new has entered the picture.
Contrast the anger of the protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention and the anger of a protester at an earlier Democratic convention in Chicago. William Jennings Bryan, at the 1896 convention, declared on behalf of struggling farmers, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” The Yippie Manifesto, published eight months before the 1968 convention commands, “Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball!”
Bryan’s language, full of righteous indignation and bleeding with Christian imagery, aims to establish a boundary. Nothing in it reveals the inner life and yearnings of Bryan. The Yippie Manifesto, on the other hand, is jokey and at pains to display its irreverence. “Rise up and abandon the creeping meatball!” doesn’t sound angry at all, but of course it is addressed to companions not to adversaries. By the last paragraph, however, the happy countercultural parade gives way to a vehement tone:
The life of the American spirit is being torn asunder by the forces of violence, decay, and the napalm-cancer fiend. …We are the delicate spores of the new fierceness that will change America. We will create our own reality, we are Free America! And we will not accept the false theater of the Death Convention.
Bryan’s anger focused on real people who advocated a particular policy; The Yippie Manifesto attacks a demonized vagueness. Bryan worried about midwestern farmers; The Yippie Manifesto farms out the “delicate spores of the new fierceness,” which is as perfect an instance of precious, narcissistic, preening New Anger that we are likely to find.
Wolfe’s reminder that anger has often been part of American politics thus seems to blur the moment when political anger went from summoning fierceness for a particular cause to imagining fierceness as a permanent form of self-therapy. From the 1930s through the 1950s, people who were ecstatically angry about political issues would more likely have been hospitalized than treated as celebrities. Times change.
In the 1990s, many Republicans seemed to have absorbed the new cultural premise that expressing fury was an appropriate way for adults to engage in politics. The corner we turned in 2000 might be summarized as the difference between the conservatives who expressed outrage at Clinton and the leftists who expressed rage at Bush. Outrage is anger framed as indignation over a violation of principle; rage is uncontrolled anger that, in its frenzy, owes little to violated principles. Republicans attacked Clinton by stating, “He lied under oath.” Democrats attacked Bush with the less punctilious, “He lied.” Conservatives looked at Clinton with disgust, as a man whose personal qualities made him unworthy of office. Liberals look on Bush with disdain, as a man too stupid to be taken seriously.
By today’s standards, the censoriousness of mainstream Clinton critics seems almost genteel and the anger tinged with disappointment. Much of the rhetoric was angry and some of it reflected showmanship, as writers competed for the image or phrase that most perfectly expressed their contempt. Yet those attacks lacked the distilled venom of “I hate President George W. Bush.” Clinton-hatred was genuine, but the era had no real equivalent to “Buck Fush” buttons.
Conservatives have been relatively slow to realize that they are up against a new cultural phenomenon. Brian C. Anderson in the spring 2001 issue of City Journal argued that the 1990s brought an increasing volume of name calling, mostly by the Left, and catches what sets these insults apart from normal political raucousness:
It has become a habit of left-liberal political argument to use such invective to dismiss conservative beliefs as if they don’t deserve an argument and to redefine mainstream conservative arguments as extremism and bigotry.
He touches on political theorist Peter Berkowitz’s observation that followers of philosopher John Rawls had adopted a conception of justice that “by fiat proclaims unreasonable and places beyond the pale of public discussion the considered views of many Catholics, Protestants and Jews.” Anderson adds:
All you can learn from such a conception is how thoughtlessly dismissive is the contemporary liberal attitude, even at its most intellectual, toward principled conservatism. A recent seminar discussion among liberal philosophy professors on how to deal with moral conflicts over abortion, homosexuality, and pornography shows just how thoughtless. One professor, a disciple of John Stuart Mill, argued that in a free society, traditional values at least need debate. The others, Rawlsians to a man, responded: No way. ‘Why should we listen to loons?’ one prominent liberal philosopher opined. ‘We should just crush them.’
Anderson spotted the tsunami racing toward shore but failed to identify the emotional dynamic of this political wave and how the new absolutism of the Left was the product of a cultural transformation.
In September 2003, Robert Bartley, writing in the Wall Street Journal, diagnosed the Democrats’ anger as resentment over a lost “birthright.” He suggested that “base Democrats think of themselves as the best people: the most intelligent and informed, the most public spirited, the most morally pure.” With loss of power in Washington came loss of something more profound—self-identity: “Indeed, inner doubts about their own moral position is one obvious path to anger.” Bartley concluded that Democratic anger is the reflex of “an establishment in the process of being replaced.”
Soon afterward, the columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested that Democrats might be collectively suffering from a syndrome called “secondary mania,” which he punditized as “Bush Derangement Syndrome: the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay—the very existence of George W. Bush.”
As a conservative critique of the Democrats’ debauch into rage-politics began to take shape, the rage itself intensified. In January 2004, MoveOn announced the winner of a contest for an anti-Bush advertisement, for which they had set aside $15 million. The winner depicts children working on assembly lines “to pay off President Bush’s $1 trillion deficit.” MoveOn posted many of the 1,500 entries on its website, including two that compare Bush to Hitler. Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont Colleges, told a reporter, “The MoveOn material in general and the ads in particular are designed to make angry people even angrier, but they don’t necessarily broaden the anti-Bush coalition.”
That description seems to fit the emotional trajectory of New Anger as a spectacle to be witnessed by an appreciative audience, not an attempt to win over the uncommitted. For anger to persuade, it has to be held back and forced to fuel more subtle suasions. Anger unleashed can hope only to intimidate a foe or impress a friend. It is not a strategy for winning over the undecided.
Shortly after John Kerry sealed the Democratic nomination, USA Today ran an article under the headline “Voter Anger Alone Can’t Capture the White House.” The article took as fact that the Democratic primaries had been shaped by “fury toward Bush,” which it compared vaguely to the earlier fury toward Clinton. Within six months of Chait’s “I hate President George W. Bush” manifesto and Bartley’s “Angry Democrats—Lost Birthright” column, the assessment of the Democrats as seething with anger had moved from the elite opinion makers to USA Today’s version of received wisdom.
A handful of articles stand out for their attempts to make sense of this new political style. In the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Miller notes, “John Kerry is angry—and he wants voters to know it.” The anger in question is not a matter of private seething, nor is it focused primarily on an opponent. It is intended for display. Miller also observes, “Righteous anger is for many Americans a good thing: a sign of one’s commitment and integrity, and not just in politics.” He notes that Dean’s anger “was a symbol of his authenticity as an ‘outsider’ candidate.” Miller captures three key qualities of New Anger: it is performed for an audience; it extends across party lines and beyond politics; and it is grounded on claims of personal authenticity.
In June 2004, as public recognition of an exceptional degree of anger was settling in, John Tierney in the New York Times offered a fresh rebuttal. He focused on studies purporting to show “that the polarized nation is largely a myth created by people inside the Beltway talking to each other or, more precisely, shouting at each other.” In this account, the anger is real but mostly confined to political elites.
Tierney’s main source was Stanford political scientist Morris P. Fioina, who with two colleagues, Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope, had written a book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, attempting to demonstrate that majorities support gun control, the death penalty, and abortion and oppose racial preferences. Tierney also found support in the work of Princeton sociologist, Paul DiMaggio, who has found that the range of opinions among Americans divided by race, age, sex, education, religion, and region has been steadily diminishing.
Tierney asks, “Why, if the public is tolerant, would the political elites be so angry?” He offers five reasons: “the decline of party bosses” who could promote centrist candidates; the rise of special-interest groups focused on ideologies; lobbies that can use defeats as a way of spurring donations; media professionals who use anger to entertain audiences; and gerrymandering, which protects incumbents in general elections but forces them “to appeal to the partisan voters who dominate primaries.”
A certain amount of self-contradiction slips in. If majorities have reached consensus on the contentious issues, where do interest groups get their popular support? Who are the donors so moved by the defeat of their ideas that they redouble their contributions? Who are the readers, listeners, and watchers who provide lucrative livings to the media hotheads? Who are the partisan voters that turn out for the primaries? They are obviously not all members of the political elite.
If we look for the culture war as a matter of constant, heated disagreement among ordinary people, we will fail to find it. Most Americans are passive consumers of culture rather than active combatants. They participate in the culture war only to the extent they cannot avoid it. The existence of noncombatants, however, doesn’t mean there’s no war.
Surveys are a weak way to get at some of the deep disagreements in American life. Two people may agree that abortion should be legal, one believing in an unconditional “right to choose,” the other favoring laws on parental consent. Often what appears as broad agreement masks important splits in premises and logic.
And the “war” is really about these premises and logic. America is divided not by the percentage of people on one side or another of a pollster’s question but by two incompatible views of the world. One emphasizes injustices in American history and continuing oppression; the other celebrates freedom and accomplishment. Those who focus on a history of injustice tend to look with pleasure on the crumbling of traditional culture. Those who celebrate freedom tend to look on the last 40 years as a period of sharp decline. One side champions the expansion of state-sponsored “rights”; the other champions individual responsibility. One side tends to view the family as an obstacle to personal liberation; the other views the family as the key social institution. Within these two frameworks, people disagree about many specific issues. Occasionally people on opposite sides of the division find common ground. But the division is nothing trivial: it guides emotional attachments and lifestyles, as well as political attitudes.
Most people understand that to get along with each other they need to find opaque ways to phrase certain issues that would otherwise embroil neighbors in constant acrimony. We don’t tear at each other day in and day out on immigration, the environment, school choice, and health-care reform. Usually we offer bland bromides instead of jalapeno harangues. But let someone raise one of these issues in a bar or in an Internet discussion, and the truce is over. These issues truly do divide the nation into complex and sometimes fiercely opposed communities of opinion.
But polarization and anger are not the same thing. The elites are indeed polarized from each other as well as angry. And we can have anger without polarity and polarity without anger. The North Pole is not usually thought of as angry with its Antarctic counterpart, and people disagree about many things without getting angry. Indeed, anger sometimes blooms more furiously when people agree about a great deal but unexpectedly find themselves in opposition on some relatively minor point. The New Anger does have roots in the cultural polarization of the last half-century. But it has gone on to a life of its own, and some of the performances of extreme rage are more about the hyperinflation in emotional currency than the polarization of politics.
Tierney’s article, of course, did not end the argument over whether the Left was acting exceptionally angry or simply expressing justified indignation. As the Democratic National Convention approached, conservatives stepped up their commentary. Michael Novak observed:
In the past, liberals made a point of hating hatred. They imagined that the forces of hate were entirely on the other side: ‘Right-wing hate merchants.’ Now they have begun publicly to glory in hate, first writing articles explaining why hatred of Bush is okay, then being pleasured by the ferocity of their own hatred, then competing with others to see who can voice the most intense disdain, and who can curl from his lips the most deliciously forbidden insults.
Novak explained this in pure culture-war terms: the Left hates Bush because he stands for those aspects of America that the Left despises, including “innocence” and “boyishness.” The Left also sees Bush as the embodiment of qualities it associates with the Right: “mean, narrow, selfish, evil.”
The Democrats kept up their diatribes, and the leftists continued to feel good about their anger. But the tactical decision to exclude such anger from emphatic display at the convention acknowledged that Democrats were in danger of having no real message other than “I hate President George W. Bush.” New Anger, for all its determination to perform for a public audience, turns out to have very little to say.
The week after the convention, Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University, published an article in the Washington Post ruminating on Bush-hatred. Fine said he realized the depth of hostility when a “distinguished social scientist” (he doesn’t name her) “without preface or embarrassment” declared that she “hated” Bush. Fine remonstrated: surely she meant that she disagreed with Bush’s policies or was “vexed by the outcome of the 2000 election.” No, she “hated” Bush. “She felt nauseated and angry when she watched him. She was not just intellectually offended but morally so.”
Fine ventures an intriguing but incomplete explanation. He suggests that “presidential hatred” develops from “images of the president as a young adult,” which capture “critical cultural divisions that were never fully healed.” Nixon was hated for his role in McCarthyism; Clinton was hated for his hippie past; Bush is hated as a rich, feckless boy who succeeded in life despite his manifest failures.
We do indeed think of our presidents not just in light of their actions in office. Their life stories take on cultural significance. But while Fine’s observations pry open some of the cultural discontents that live inside Bush-hatred, they do not explain the license that a distinguished social scientist felt to allow her distastes to fester into “hatred” or the legitimacy she felt in expressing that hatred. Her ease about “hating”—and satisfaction in harboring it and telling others—is new. The old practice of seizing the biographies of presidents either to praise or denigrate them has been marshaled into the culture wars and armed with the weaponry of existential fury. For the first time in our political history, declaring absolute hatred for one’s opponent has become a sign not of sad excess but of good character.
Which, Republicans under Clinton or Democrats under Bush, suffered more grievously at the insolence of the other or responded more petulantly? I doubt that any objective standard could be found to evaluate such rock fights. In both cases, older ideals of circumspection and restraint collapsed. As Wolfe rightly points out, decorum in American politics was a weak reed to begin with: we have long had the habit of speaking harshly about each other’s failings and have often descended into personal attacks. But the eruptions of anger against Clinton and Bush took us beyond vituperation to a kind of anger that luxuriated in its own vehemence. Anger always has content as well as style, but New Anger elevates style to a new prominence. Being angry with New Anger is as much about declaring one’s identity as it is about taking umbrage at someone else’s infraction.
This is not, of course, exclusively a Democratic disease. It is bipartisan in its epidemiology, but naturally more salient in whatever party is currently out of power. New Anger does, however, have deeper roots on the Left. We can trace it back at least to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. On the Right, it seems to have emerged into mainstream prominence only during the Clinton years. The angry Right of previous decades—the John Birch Society and kindred anti-Communist and anti-civil-rights organizations—was politically marginal and focused much more on advancing an ideology. New Anger shifts the emphasis to public projection of one’s feelings in a manner that may wrap in some political ideals but that nonetheless makes the matter personal.
Anger against Clinton was rarely and only superficially directed at his policies, although these could be swept into an indictment of his lack of principles. Conservatives saw Clinton as a man seducing the country into a cheaper version of itself—and succeeding. They saw the leaders of elite institutions shrugging off or temporizing with Clinton’s personal corruption and feared this meant that older traditions of moral probity had lost their grip on America.
Bush stands for millions of Democrats as an embodiment of the callow and ignorant side of American life, a man moved by the pursuit of money and cronyism and contemptuous of social justice, international law, and other enlightened ideals. Democrats see Bush as tricking the country into becoming a meaner version of itself—and using the war on terror to make that change permanent. They fear that he is displacing the people who by virtue of education and commitment to liberal ideals ought to be guiding America’s institutions.
These really are polarized views. Each offers a moral picture of the United States as corrupted at the very top. And each invites us to participate as an agent of moral cleansing by joining in a wrathful purging of political opposition. Neither view invites us to consider the advantages of compromise, negotiation, patience, or temperance.
If, in your anger, you reduce your opponent to the status of someone unworthy or unable to engage in legitimate exchange, real politics comes to an end. That is the danger we face if we allow New Anger to continue to flourish in our political life. We have now discovered what it is like to be so angry—or self-righteous or condescending—that we hear only our own ravishing anger song. Anger may sharpen the senses in some contexts, but New Anger leads to a kind of cultural obliviousness that cannot be good for a democratic society.
During the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick warned that Democrats err in supposing that judges who espouse the conservative judicial philosophy are “teeming with hate and rage.” Thinking so, she said,
… leads you Senate Democrats to believe that if you can just ask the right question of a federalist, he will erupt into a hissing, spitting parody of Bill O’Reilly and then try to strangle you with his bow tie on C-SPAN. As you observe the federalists here today, you will learn that they love their families and do not devote their careers to systematically holding back women, persecuting minorities, and stealing wheelchairs from the disabled.
The self-defeating behavior of the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, is only one small instance of how New Anger stymies those who might, with less anger and more careful attention to actual circumstances, persuade others of the merits of their views. New Anger has eroded our collective capacity to advance worthy political aspirations. This is true for conservatives as well as liberals. Whoever embraces it is bound to find that, at least in the political realm, he has traded the possibility of real influence for the momentary satisfactions of self-expression.
Americans are faced with plenty of issues in which a certain amount of good old-fashioned anger might be appropriate, but this is not about advancing my own view of substantive national priorities. Rather, I am concerned that we have, with no real forethought, drifted into a style of political engagement that is very unlikely to prove constructive.
We are divided from one another into more interest groups, factions, and subcultures than Madison could ever have imagined. If we allow New Anger to become the common mode of self-expression in politics, can we hold this enterprise together? Or do we sink into a vast and noisy quarrel in which everyone is so eager to express his personal grievance that we are no longer able to hear ourselves?
Peter Wood is provost of The King’s College in New York City. This essay is adapted from A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now by Peter Wood. Copyright ©2006. Reprinted by agreement from Encounter Books.