May 21, 2010

JOSEPH REISERT: Americans’ anger a good thing; it shows how much we care

The voters, we keep hearing, are in an angry mood.

Survey data support this. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 21 percent of Americans now describe themselves as “angry” about the federal government, with only 19 percent “basically content.” These figures represent a substantial shift from 10 years ago, at the end of the Clinton administration, when fully one-third of Americans described themselves as “basically content,” and only 10 percent said they were “angry” at Washington.

Is all this political anger a sign that something is fundamentally wrong with our politics? No. In fact, political anger is mostly a good thing.

Anger, after all, is a moral passion. We don’t get angry for no reason; anger is how we react to injustice. It’s how we feel when we believe that someone has wronged us, or refused to give us, or our friends, something we or they deserve.

Anger also needs an object. We get angry only at specific people at whom we feel we can strike back. That’s why we don’t get angry at the economy in the abstract, but only at the particular individuals we hold responsible for our troubles — the malfeasant mortgage brokers, bailed-out corporate bankrupts and their political enablers.

It’s also why anger is the quintessentially political emotion. As Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield has observed, “Politics is about what makes you angry, not so much about what you want. Your wants do matter, but mainly because you feel you are entitled to have them satisfied and get angry when they are not.”

That gives us one clue to why there is so much anger now.

Conservatives’ anger at government now reflects their sense that the government is doing them injustice — by spending and borrowing too much, and by implementing policies of which they disapprove in principle, such as the government takeover of health care.

Liberals who worry loudly about conservatives’ angry opposition to their policies tend to forget how vocally angry they were when they were in the minority. For every angry thing said about the 44th president now, an equally angry and unpleasant thing was said about the 43rd.

In fact, the Pew Research Center found that Americans were roughly as angry at government in 2006 as they are today — though it’s a safe bet that it was then the Democrats who raged the loudest.

The fact that anger has been running high now for many years and that our angry political climate predates the onset of the Great Recession provides a second clue.

Our political anger is not, or not directly, about the economy. Neither is it about race. It is instead a by-product of two features of our current political environment, both of which are basically good things.

First, most of us still, deep down, retain some idealism about government. If we were more profoundly cynical, we’d just shrug our shoulders every time public officials did something stupid or corrupt and ask why anyone expected anything different. We still get angry at the government because it can still disappoint our high hopes for it.

Second, many of us are intensely attached to the sets of solutions we’d like to see implemented to address our nation’s problems, and, as citizens, we feel entitled to see our principles acted upon. When the government acts on other principles than ours, we don’t just feel discouraged at the prospect of a sub-optimal policy outcome. We get mad because our views are not getting the respect we feel they deserve.

That’s why conservatives now angrily say, “We want our country back,” and why Democrats in 2004 and 2006 said they wanted “regime change in Washington.” In both cases, the partisans’ slogans meant the same thing: “We think we know best, and we feel entitled to lead. Follow or get out of the way.”

Political anger is fun to indulge, because it is pleasant to anticipate revenge against our enemies.

 Liberals enjoyed fantasizing about closing the Guantanamo Bay prison far more than they have enjoyed the actual task of doing it without endangering the country. Conservatives now are enjoying the fantasy of repealing Obamacare far more than they will actually enjoy the task of coming up with something better.

 The political anger of others, however, is no fun to watch. But rather than get discouraged by the sight of angry fellow-citizens denouncing their partisan opponents, we should reflect that our country would be in far worse shape if no one cared enough about it to get angry.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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