The Chronicle Review

Look Ahead in Anger

Hyperbolic rhetoric threatens to swamp our politics

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July 11, 2010

Five months ago, Andrew Joseph Stack III, a middle-aged man who had a long-running dispute over taxes with the federal government, flew a kamikaze mission into the IRS building in Austin, Tex. On the Internet, numerous bloggers immediately declared Stack a hero, a martyr in the war against Big Government.

At about the same time, with health-care reform seemingly stalled, left-leaning activists grew increasingly shrill in their denunciations of President Obama. He was, many opined, a false messiah, a cheat, a Manchurian candidate for the right who had promised change and instead delivered more of the same old cronyism and corruption. Unemployment was nearing double digits; partisanship was as omnipresent as ever; government had bailed out the banks and allowed their executives to pocket obscene bonuses. When Obama announced that he would send more troops to Afghanistan—a priority he had reiterated time and again during the election campaign—the filmmaker Michael Moore wrote a public letter to the president accusing him of undermining the hopes and dreams of millions of young Americans. When Obama made compromises with Congressional figures to forge a viable coalition around health-care reform, his left flank immediately declared that he had been bought off by corporate America.

After Congress finally passed health-care reform, the rage axis tilted again. Their expectations scaled back by the upset victory of a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts, progressives were a bit quieter, and it was a scarred conservative movement that was again, literally, up in arms. Scores of Democratic politicians started receiving death threats; many were so worried that they asked the FBI for extra protection. Around the country, Tea Party candidates, frequently representing little more than an inchoate rage against the zeitgeist, mounted strong primary challenges to entrenched, long-serving Republican politicians, and some sober GOP'ers, hoping to stave off defeat by the insurgents, remade themselves as rage-filled harbingers of imminent doom. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, of Ohio, repeatedly declared that passing the health-care bill was not just politically wrong but apocalyptic. As the primary season progressed, incumbent Democrats, too, began to feel the sting. Alan B. Mollohan, of West Virginia, became the first House Democrat to lose his seat. The confrontations continued, with a biker and his son, angered at government, in a shootout with the police in Arkansas.

In many ways, whether our political leanings are left, right, or middle of the road, rage is our shared experience these days. One way of looking at what is happening is that it is an expression of our anxiety over what increasingly looks to be Pax Americana's departing hegemony.

During the Bush presidency, furious books by liberal commentators—Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, for example, topped best-seller lists. Today, with a liberal president, one is more likely to see conservative jeremiads dominating the list: Glenn Beck's Arguing With Idiots; Sarah Palin's Going Rogue; Michelle Malkin's The Culture of Corruption. Liberal or conservative, they tend to be books long on hyperbolic rhetoric and short on facts.

Over the past year, that rhetoric has threatened to swamp our political culture. Increasingly, a language of bitterness, frustration, and fury has become our default response to the unraveling of illusion. It is no accident that the most rageful moment in modern American history has emerged barely a year after one of the most utopian moments—the movement that swept Obama into the White House and brought millions onto the streets of America's cities to celebrate his victory. "In addition to resignation and a cynical turning away from yesterday's illusions," the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes, in his book Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation (originally published in Der Zeit, recently brought out in English translation by Columbia University Press), "these waves often lead to momentous formations of rage."

Yet while the rage in some ways transcends politics, in important ways it is deeply rooted in contemporary conservatism. Indeed, if Islamic terrorism is the outward manifestation of a civil war within Islam between modernists and advocates of a notional, romanticized "purity," as is frequently posited, the season of rage that American domestic politics has entered is to a large extent the externalization of a battle of ideas inside one part of the polity. Within the conservative movement—which has, in many ways over the past 40-plus years, provided the intellectual backdrop against which American political discourse has developed and the linguistic tools with which we now define and debate our political choices—there is a growing schism over the role of government in American life. As a result, anger over big government and the incumbents alleged to have brought it into being is sweeping across party lines.

Is conservatism about good government or no government? Responsible tax policy or against the very idea of taxes? Engagement with change or refusal to contemplate change? The great conservative thinkers of decades past, Sam Tanenhaus argues in his book Death of Conservatism (Random House, 2009), believed that government has a role to play in moderating markets and shaping society; today's conservative leadership, in contrast, are committed to a one-size-fits-all antigovernmentalism.

In the long run, many conservative political figures, like Sen. Robert Bennett, recently defeated for renomination at the Utah GOP convention, will probably see their careers destroyed not by liberal opponents but by other conservatives. In the meantime, rage will increasingly come to be seen as a leitmotif running throughout America's political discourse. And as the language of rage percolates throughout the country, as people of all political persuasions borrow from a vernacular hardened in the kilns of conservatism, the collateral damage threatens to send fissures cascading through the entire body politic, as well as the public, for years to come. Incumbents will be defeated—which isn't necessarily a bad thing; but they will be defeated not so much because of their individual successes or failures as legislators as because they represent an old, and increasingly discredited, order.

Why is inchoate anger such a motif? Obviously, there's the decline of economic security faced by tens of millions of Americans in an era of home foreclosures, stock-market volatility, and unemployment. Economic crises rattle the political status quo. But the discontent runs in deeper, less logically grounded veins, too. Culturally the country is changing, as what it means to be an American is profoundly shifting. Sexually, ethnically, religiously, the country is a different animal than it was even a generation ago. The culture wars, as well as the growing backlash against immigration, are reactions against those trends. But above and beyond all of the cultural issues and all of the temporary woes surrounding the deep recession, I believe that what is happening to the United States on the world stage is providing the most crucial seedbed for that anger.

As America's undisputed global dominance ebbs—trimmed by China's surging economic might, by the European Union's growing presence as a global player (even given the travails triggered by the recent European debt crisis and the fears of a Greek default dragging the euro zone into a deeper recession), by the United States' own economic and military overstretch—the rage culture has matured to the point where it is coming to be a dark, and perhaps even a dominant, part of America's identity.

A stab-in-the-back narrative is being crafted within the world of conservatism: Things were going along just fine for a globally dominant United States (forgetting, conveniently, the depth of anti-American sentiment that developed around the world during President Bush's tenure, culminating in the financial collapse of 2007-8) until a radical President Obama decided to expand government, shrink the private sector, and traverse the world apologizing for America's purported past misdeeds. Like the decadent Europeans, guilt-ridden after their centuries of colonial dominance, so Obamians came into power intent on downplaying America's glory and its exceptionalism, and on talking up its sins.

According to this narrative, Obama's expansion of the welfare state represents an attack on both states' rights and individual freedoms that veers toward the treasonous. Here it gets murkier: Many of the more-extreme groups place his race, his otherness, his cosmopolitan leanings front and center. The president is out to destroy America because, put simply, he's never really been a true American in the first place.

Other, more-respectable branches of the anger coalition avoid such discussions, but talk instead about the anti-American presumptions behind the "socialization" or "Europeanization" project that Obama has embarked upon. Beck talks of a creeping Marxism taking over America. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell went on Fox News early in the Obama presidency to declare that the new administration's stimulus package represented a "Europeanization of America." A National Review cover story by the political commentator Mark Steyn last year, titled "Our Socialist Future," said Obama's grand schemes were far larger, more "Europeanized" than were FDR's and LBJ's. A year later, the conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg, an editor-at-large at the National Review, warned his audience that "Europe is a free-rider. It can only afford to be Europe because we can afford to be America."

"European" is becoming the new "E-word," a sneering, belittling term akin to the infamous denigration of "liberalism" a couple of decades ago. It is used to signify weakness, decadence, a loss of moral core. It is used to explain a creeping subversion of the American Dream.

The stab-in-the-back narrative is a trajectory familiar to students of empire the world over. As the ground shifts under the feet of a dominant power, as the structures supporting dominance start to crack, so the public gets angrier. It looks at past glories and doesn't understand why the present situation is so much less resplendent. It blames the country's leadership, or minority groups, or national enemies. It grieves for lost influence, or fears the imminent loss of influence, and it shudders at an increasingly shabby present.

Most famously, in recent times, German nationalists in the wake of the country's defeat in the Great War took to blaming Jews and Communists, fifth columnists, for losing the war and, by extension, threatening the nation. Russian nationalists, in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, created a vast realm of conspiracy theories to explain their country's shrunken status on the global stage.

Less dramatically, as Britain's position as a pre-eminent power collapsed post-World War II, the country responded with a strange mixture of fury and resignation. "I must say it's pretty dreary living in the American age, apart from if you're an American, of course," opined the drunken, nihilistic, spiteful, and utterly depressive Jimmy Porter, bitterly, in Look Back in Anger, the famous postwar play and later film about British angst and the loss of illusion. John Osborne's creation was the quintessential rage drama in a Britain when young people could still recall a childhood living in a land of undisputed supremacy, and could look forward to a middle age of mediocrity in a victorious but bankrupt kingdom and to an old age of national insignificance. And when they were angry enough about it to be shouting bloody murder and casting around for people to blame.

Half a generation later, as the British public grew more accustomed to the country's diminished role in world affairs, at least some of the anger had changed to sarcasm, humor, and self-denigration. The era of Monty Python had commenced. National quirks that previously signified greatness were now derided. Stiff upper lips, the queen, Winston Churchill, those were now the stuff of jokes rather than the majesty of empire.

That said, the anger never entirely dissipated: The 1970s, the era of London punk rock, saw a surge in fascist street politics in many poor communities. The 1980s were pockmarked by skinhead violence and football hooliganism. And today anti-immigrant parties like the British National Party are sometimes making electoral inroads, at the local if not the national level. Britain is a land that knows how to laugh at itself, but it is also a place still riven with a subterranean fury at the hand dealt it by recent history. "Are not all civilizations, either openly or in secret, always archives of collective trauma?" Sloterdijk asks in his recent book.

America in 2010 hasn't reached the self-deprecating Monty Python stage yet, but it's not much of a stretch to see in Glenn Beck's tirades, Lou Dobbs's anti-immigrant screeds, and Sarah Palin's faux nostalgia for the sunshine days, the nastiness and anger, if not the poetry, of Jimmy Porter; the fury, if not the haircuts, of skinhead hooligans (although a fair number of white-supremacist and militia groups in America these days do seem to have numbers of skinheads in their midst). The hollow sounds of a skinhead rendition of "Rule Britannia" are echoed, in some ways, in the raucous chants of "USA, USA!" at Tea Party gatherings today.

Anger, per se, is nothing new in American politics. As the historian Richard J. Hofstadter detailed in his classic essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," rage politics is as American as apple pie, or as the sunny, simplistic, homogeneous visions of community epitomized by the paintings of Norman Rockwell. But the presence of that anger was always partially mitigated by the apple pie and the Rockwell, by the pervasive optimism that has long been a core part of America's image. More often, despite episodic spasms of rage, the broader culture has worn a smile rather than a frown. With America ascendant, it was easy for the rage to be largely contained within relatively small subcultures—John Birchers, KKK'ers, the Weather Underground, anti-United Nations fanatics, some of the more extreme black-nationalist groups, and so on. That didn't mean the rage wasn't capable of inflicting tremendous hurt on society—witness the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr.—but our Rockwell side did serve to limit the extent to which the culture as a whole could come to be defined as rage-based.

What has happened recently seems to represent something new: The offsets that used to restrict rage's reach have started to break down; the walls sealing the anger off to a specific community or locale, or around a specific issue, have started to crumble. As a result, rage is becoming an ideology unto itself.

In fact, argues the journalist David Neiwert, in The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (PoliPoint Press, 2009), today's culture has produced transmission mechanisms for anger that overwhelm other, calmer emotions. Witness the rise of talk radio, blogging, and rant TV. Witness the violence inherent in much rap music, and the increasingly apocalyptic pronouncements of many fundamentalist churches.

What started as a shtick—Rush Limbaugh milking anger almost as a form of irony, or satire, intended to poke fun at the happy-family culture—has become a self-fulfilling reality. The shtick has gone, but the rage remains as the selling point.

Today two-thirds of the American public believes that the country is on the wrong track—a proportion that has not changed much from the latter part of the Bush presidency through the second year of the Obama presidency. And large majorities of the public, more than 80 percent, say they do not trust their leaders in Washington, the highest number in a half-century. Among Republican-leaning independents and conservative Republicans, 53 percent sympathize with the Tea Party movement, largely defined by rage and resentment, by opposition to government, to taxes, to civic infrastructure, rather than by support for a proactive agenda, liberal or conservative. A recent poll conducted by AP-GfK has found that 28 to 30 percent of all respondents sympathize with the Tea Party, although another poll, by The New York Times, found that only 18 to 20 percent did so. Whatever the number, clearly many millions of Americans are attracted to the movement.

It brings to mind a quote from William Hazlitt's 1826 essay "On the Pleasure of Hating": "The pleasure of hating, like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: it leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others." Cultures that self-identify as victims and come to see their defining historical references as a series of grievances have a tendency to mutate in ways that range from unpleasant to catastrophic. Examples include the American South in the post-Civil War decades, Germany in the post-World War I years, the Soviet Union, post-Yugoslav Serbia, and Rwanda. One could argue, as well, that much of the potency of Islamicism today arises from similar forces, as does some of the extremism of the settler community in Israel and the occupied territories. As cultures, hate movements perform somewhat similarly to feuding families or clans, their raison d'être increasingly defined by violence and fury.

I do believe that American democratic institutions are particularly durable and resilient. But it is at least possible to envision a scenario in which, after years of high unemployment and declining living standards, the Tea Party essentially takes over the GOP. And it is possible to see how, over a series of election cycles, that movement could plant a brand of extremism in the center of American politics that would fundamentally change America's identity. It would very likely be characterized by a series of negatives: being anti-intellectual, anti-foreign, blustering in its assertion of an increasingly fragile American superiority, unwilling to engage with the rest of the world on environmental policy, nuclear disarmament, or human rights. A tapestry of rage defined by what its practitioners oppose rather than support.

Unlike constructive anger—which harvests rage in order to push for a set of positive changes and the development of new institutions of governance—destructive anger offers no real alternatives to the status quo.

It is the pervasiveness of destructive anger in our culture today that is so worrying. Arguably, nothing is a better gauge of a country's crisis moment, of the inability of a political system to mediate disputes and smooth out societal ruptures, than the collapsing sense of tomorrow encompassed in such rage.

Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento-based freelance journalist and a lecturer in the writing program at the University of California at Davis. He is author, most recently, of Inside Obama's Brain (Portfolio, 2009).