The Angry American

Social rage as a measure of the country's moral and political well-being

Is an angry society an unhealthy one? So we're often told. Feeling angry? Well, then, say those earnest experts who seek to soothe our roiled spirits, calm down. Take a pill. Try yoga. In The New York Times the op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof begs us to "hold the vitriol," which, he worries, "discourages public service." And yet where would America be without its anger? Perhaps still under Colonial rule, if those rowdy upstarts had never tossed British tea into Boston Harbor. Perhaps still mired in a slave-based economy, if not for the prodding of yes, vitriolic abolitionists. Okay—I'm exaggerating to underscore a point. But the point is worth considering: the presence of anger can indicate a society's moral and political well-being, and its absence can be a worrisome sign of complacency. Indeed, the democratic idea rests on the proposition that the well-placed anger of the citizenry can be an appropriate and useful instrument of change. Aristotle certainly thought so. "The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people ...," he wrote in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics, "is praised."

Praise be, America's social-anger thermometer is on the rise. No, the mercury has not reached the level of the 1960s, America's previous Decade of Anger. But there is an appreciable warming of the economic, political, and cultural climate zones. Let's start with a brief definition of terms. By "social anger"—or, let's say, "public anger"—I don't mean incidents of road rage or obscene chants directed by Boston Red Sox bleacher bums at New York Yankees outfielders. My concern is with the anger that is directed at the institutions of political, legal, economic, and cultural power; at the practices and policies that such institutions pursue; and at the people in charge of them. This is, broadly speaking, anti-establishmentarian anger. Ripe targets include the Pentagon, the Republican Party, George Bush, multinational corporations, the California car-tax collector, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court judges who in November revoked a state ban on same-sex marriages.

The prospect of gay marriage infuriates religiously motivated conservative traditionalists. Manufacturing workers are angry about jobs lost to a resurgent China. ("A SEETHING POLITICAL ANGER RISES IN AMERICA'S INDUSTRIAL HEARTLAND," the trade publication Manufacturing & Technology News recently declared.) Perhaps the most sensitive issue of all is the mounting casualty list in U.S.-occupied Iraq, which is generating antiwar wrath at the powers that be in Washington. Some of this anger is deeply personal, born of grief; it is acquiring a public, political cast as relatives of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq speak out in the newspapers and on radio and television. "The President don't care," Vecie Williams, the cousin of Sergeant Aubrey Bell, of Tuskegee, Alabama, who was shot and killed in front of an Iraqi police station, told The New York Times. "You see him on TV. He says this, he says that. But show me one tear, one tear."

Ahead of us promises to be an invigorating election season in which the prizes go to those candidates able to tap the anger while managing to avoid becoming its target. Howard Dean, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, who at any moment looks ready to sink his teeth into the nearest available thigh, is banking his campaign on the "I'm mad as hell" (about Iraq, the economy, Bush, you name it) vote. Other Democrats are certainly doing their best to imitate his snarl. "The angry voter is back," the veteran pollster John Zogby reports. "He and she have been on sabbatical." Zogby says the sabbatical began with the economic boom that started in the mid-1990s, but the boom petered out nearly three years ago, and the discord has been growing ever since. And the terrorism threat seems to have only exacerbated partisan rivalry. The Washington-based Pew Research Center found in a recent survey that "national unity was the initial response to the calamitous events of Sept. 11, 2001, but that spirit has dissolved amid rising political polarization and anger."

Although public anger tends toward cyclical peaks and troughs, its varieties fall into well-established taxonomical grooves. There really aren't any altogether new kinds of anti-establishmentarian anger in America—a country that since its birth has been a congenial breeding ground for this sort of animosity. But even if such anger is a fixed part of America's genetic code, mutations occur as the various strains adapt to a changing political, social, and cultural environment. A catalogue of the forms of social anger in America circa 2003 reflects the nation's evolution as the ultimate middle-class society. It turns out that public anger doesn't dissipate as the average house size (and waistband) expands; it simply fastens onto new targets. Perhaps, as some analysts argue, the anger of an affluent post-industrial society is inevitably rooted more in cultural identity than in economic discontent—but then again, never underestimate the rage of an American who senses a threat to material livelihood. At least three forms of anger in the catalogue, updated for the times, are classic breeds.

Economic-Populist Anger

Traditional American populism was born on the prairie, as struggling nineteenth-century farmers focused their ire on the large, alien, impersonal forces of a rapidly industrializing economy—namely, the extortionist freight-hauling railroads and Wall Street banks to which the farmers were hostage. Today's prototypical angry worker is the laid-off factory worker; since March of 1998 the U.S. manufacturing sector has shed 3.1 million jobs. The blue-collar manufacturing sector endured a similar downsizing in the early 1980s, but now there is a growing white-collar component to the trend, with Boeing, Microsoft, and IBM all "outsourcing" software-programming and engineering jobs to lower-wage havens like India and Russia. In an Internet society it is possible to contract abroad for almost any work that deals principally in digitized data, such as insurance claims. The future of populist anger may thus lie in Redmond, Washington, and Hartford, Connecticut. Born of economic fear and insecurity, this anger has an eternal future in a dynamic capitalist society in which "structural change" is inescapable.

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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a staff correspondent for National Journal. He recently completed a four-year stint as the Moscow bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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