The Angry American

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

By Paul Starobin

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.

In the here and now, though, the anger is concentrated in places like Rockford, Illinois, a once thriving center of machine-tool industry about an hour's drive from Chicago. The Rockford area has lost 10,000 jobs in the past three years—at Motorola, Textron, and other companies—and many of those laid-off workers who have found new employment are generally working for lower wages, without health and other benefits. "We're on our way to becoming a Third World nation," says Donald Manzullo, a Republican member of Congress who was born in Rockford in 1944 and has represented the district since 1993. Manzullo is a lawyer; his father was a machinist. Although he counts himself a free-trader, he blames China, as do many others in his district, for keeping its currency artificially undervalued, thus boosting exports. What's the state of mind of his constituents? "They are angry because they lost their jobs," he says, "angry because the jobs are going overseas, and angry because the Chinese work for such a low wage." The anger is starting to turn inward, into depression: "A lot of people have given up hope."

Although the pain from which populist anger springs is certainly real, the anger itself tends to be misplaced. Rapacious railroads damaged but did not destroy the yeoman farmer; he fell prey to mechanization, which raised the productivity of American agriculture so much that many fewer workers were needed to produce the same quantity of, say, corn. Similarly, the main reason today's manufacturing workers occupy a shrinking share of the work force is that automation has vastly improved productivity in factories—a trend also inexorably in motion in Japan and Europe.

Still, populist anger tends to serve a useful social purpose. Agrarian populism generated political momentum for the trust-busting and other good-government reforms of the Progressive era. Angry U.S. manufacturing workers are helping to stimulate an overdue debate on the sweatshop conditions in which many products are made in China and elsewhere—a debate that has already prompted Nike and other multinationals to upgrade their overseas labor standards, and that may yield a more balanced trade policy (if not one that restores the industrial vitality of Rockford). And if health-care benefits ever become "portable" (that is, migrate with workers wherever they go), the populist anger of permanently anxious workers forced to change jobs half a dozen times during their careers probably will have been responsible.

Liberal Anger

In the beginning, the Angry American Liberal was a Christian human-rights zealot embarked on a crusade ordained by a wrathful God against the original sin of the new republic: slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the daughter of an evangelical Protestant preacher, helped to support her family by writing for religious periodicals. She shook the country with her first novel, the anti-slavery tract Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), but her writing, suffused with a Christian sentimentality, has scant appeal for the modern liberal. Outside the African-American community, whose religious leaders continue to embrace a liberal politics of righteous indignation rooted in the Bible, the voices of modern liberalism are almost entirely secular. The creeping secularization of liberal anger, which brings the values of the white American liberal into rough alignment with those of Northern Europe's mainstream political culture, stands as political anger's most impressive adaptation in the past century. Indeed, religious fervor is a central animus for this liberal, who associates it with intolerance and inexplicable (to the modern liberal mind) conservative obsessions such as abortion and school prayer.

Perhaps not since the 1960s has liberal anger been so intense. Its grievances have blended into a potent brew: first the 2000 election, which liberals believe George Bush stole; then the inattention to environmental concerns, as symbolized by the Bush Administration's abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol; and now the Iraq War, which liberals widely view as manufactured by the Bush team to benefit nefarious crony interests, including the oil-services company Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer. The Republican Party itself is seen as a font of evil.

To take a sounding of this anger I spoke with one of modern American liberalism's most articulate—and imposing—representatives: the novelist Jane Smiley, who stands over six feet tall and regularly dispatches angry letters on politics to The New York Times and other news organizations. Smiley's novels have not so far tackled explicitly political themes, but the writer offered a modern commentary on patriarchal rage in A Thousand Acres, which loosely uses the plot of King Lear for a story about a midwestern father's tempestuous dealings with his three daughters. "I woke up early this morning, and I lay awake anxious and angry about political matters," Smiley told me in a telephone chat from her home in Carmel Valley, California, on a Thursday in early November, the day after she learned that the Republicans had won gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi. "I see people who are Republicans as people who have aligned themselves with the worst features of the American character. I call them the gruesome threesome: toxic patriotism, toxic religion, and toxic racism." Smiley conceded that her anger is in some sense problematic; it's disturbing her sleep, for one thing, and it disagrees, she said, with the liberal's temperamental preference for placid tolerance. But on the whole, she said, "I don't actually mind being angry. I don't think liberals mind. I think it's a good thing."

This current wave of anger has been a long time coming, with liberals finally responding in kind to the generation of smash-mouth conservatives who have been assaulting them since the Reagan era. Before there was Howard Dean there was Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live writer and performer who in 1996 published his mold-making Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. That book, Franken told me recently, grew out of his anger at the Gingrich revolution of 1994, for which he saw Limbaugh as "the mouthpiece." Franken's current anti-Bush, anti-Republican best seller, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, prepared with research assistance from students at Harvard (where Franken was a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy), is relatively low on humor and in the vein of a political-activist tract. It is a favorite among Dean's well-read supporters, who are disproportionately drawn from the wealthiest, best-educated wing of the Democratic Party.

The bane of modern liberal anger is its tendency to closet itself in elite, marginal causes, such as those espoused by the various societies opposed to anyone's wearing fur. But liberal anger at its best is drawn from the deepest and purest source of all: love. No one has ever expressed this anger better than Charles Dickens. With his scathing indictments of the numerous institutional injustices of Victorian Britain—from debtors' prisons to dreadful factories dependent on child labor—he moved a society toward its better self, and toward reform. In America a kind of Dickensian anger appeared in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, which laid bare the injustices of institutionalized racism. The last sermon that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote (he was murdered before he could deliver it) was titled "Why America May Go to Hell." But King's central vision was of a new Promised Land, which could be reached only through a redemptive journey paid for in the coin of love. Today's wrathful liberals are unlikely to broaden their appeal unless they can transcend their penchant for satire and sarcasm—which are indirect ways, after all, of taking a poke at a target. Michael Moore's best seller Dude, Where's My Country? doesn't quite cut it.

Traditional-Values Anger

Just how long can social conservatives stay angry? Conservative anger at such venerable targets as Harvard, Hollywood, and the TV networks began well before the ascent of Rush Limbaugh, in the mid-1980s—its roots are in the Goldwater and Nixon campaigns of the 1960s and even before that, in young-Republican activism on college campuses. In an earlier era, when Darwinism was a fresher concept, conservative Bible Belt anger welled up at the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

Conservative anger persists because core elements of the conservative world view—which is grounded in an abiding religious belief—are in fact under steady assault (and have been ridiculed since at least H. L. Mencken, with his barbs at Bible Belters). The conservative bid (led by southern Democrats) to thwart racial integration was lost decades ago, so thoroughly lost that Mississippi Senator Trent Lott and other old-style conservatives are nowadays embarrassed to be reminded that so many in their ranks supported the struggle to maintain segregation. The effort to limit abortion achieves an occasional success (such as the recently enacted restriction on so-called partial-birth abortion), but the overall trend is altogether in favor of the liberal feminist vision enunciated by Betty Friedan & Co. in the 1960s. Conservative attempts to keep smut from invading the household faltered with the coming of the Internet, a pure-gold pipeline for the pornography industry.

And in a society as culturally fluid as America's there will always be new causes for anger on the right. These days gay rights seem to be taking the place once occupied by racial integration as a focus for conservative rage, with the anger meter rising especially rapidly on the volatile issue of gay marriage. One stalwart opponent of gay marriage, Sandy Rios, the president of Concerned Women for America, a Washington-based group whose motto calls for "prayer and action," says she possesses "a righteous anger" that "comes from serious followers of Jesus." A divorced fifty-four-year-old mother of two who grew up in southern Illinois, Rios says that she herself has seen how the permissive values of the 1960s have broken up families and damaged children. Why such strong sentiments on gay marriage in particular? Because traditional marriage, between a man and a woman, is like "the support beam in a big house," she says. "If you take the support beam out, the structure will fail."

At its worst conservative anger detracts from well-being not only by embracing stereotyped and in some cases hateful images of certain groups of people but also by drawing from the tainted well of nostalgia. The well is tainted because the nostalgia is usually for a society remembered or imagined as much better than it ever actually was. Nostalgia can make for poignant art, but it tends to produce a perverse and impractical politics. In 1930 a group of southern writers at Vanderbilt University, including John Crowe Ransom and other "fugitive poets," railed against a faster-paced modern life in their deservedly discarded political manifesto I'll Take My Stand , which offered the South "in its very backwardness" as a pathway to "the reconstruction of America."

But at its best conservative anger has forced a rigorous, Old Testament-like moral accounting on issues incautiously advanced by modern liberal secularists. America, which does sometimes seem close to motoring full throttle over a secular cliff, is richer for the debate that angry and uncompromising social conservatives have forced on abortion and euthanasia. As inflamed as the question of gay marriage is likely to become, committed conservatives will force lawmakers, courts, and the large number of citizens who are unsure of their stance to do some hard thinking about the legal and moral meanings of marriage and its larger significance for the social health of America. We're probably going to get where the liberal secularists want to take us, but at a more measured, more deliberate pace.

From the archives:

"Suspicious Minds" (January/February 2003)
Too much trust can actually be a bad thing—a polity of suckers is no better than a nation of cynics. But Americans' steadily declining faith in one another is a warning. By Jedediah Purdy

Is social anger really, on balance, a public good? Certain variants seem entirely devoid of merit. Cynicism—at least one part the anger of the disillusioned spirit—is generally corrosive, although a populace that errs on the side of suspiciousness toward its leaders is not altogether a bad thing. (Better a cynical than a credulous nation.) Then there's a loathing of our nation's leaders, which is often linked to a sense of betrayal. A violent, visceral hatred has at times exacted the steepest of prices: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln came during a campaign of unremitting vilification, in which haters portrayed the President as a traitor to his race and drew caricatures of him as a Negro and an ape. In the 1990s a wave of presidential loathing resulted in the character assassination of Bill Clinton, who was hated with a particular intensity by fellow southerners who viewed his liberalism and his embrace of selected aspects of 1960s counterculture (even if he never inhaled) as a threat to their region's native conservatism. Clinton of course provoked them with his behavioral lapses and subsequent lies—but the loathing was out of proportion to the offenses. And now George Bush, who strikes a fair number of people as a genial guy, is the target of loathing on the left, with the haters gleefully confessing to an obsessive animosity. ("I hate George W. Bush," Jonathan Chait wrote at the outset of his September 29 New Republic cover story, "Mad About You.") Loathing tends to focus on the minutely personal as emblematic of the political; in Bush's case, his strut seems to be a particularly infuriating trait, a signifier of the cockiness and arrogance the loathers see in his stance on Iraq and other matters. "He's a smug bastard—you can tell by the way he walks," said Peter Nelson, a thirty-five-year-old massage therapist who showed up at Faneuil Hall, in Boston, to cheer on Howard Dean at a debate there on November 4. (To demonstrate, Nelson puffed out his chest and swung his arms wide, mimicking a cowboy saunter.) It may be that loathing of the President is an unavoidable by-product of the pursuit of bold change. Few Presidents have faced more vitriol than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom fellow patricians considered a betrayer of his class for his embrace of the New Deal. It's hard to remember much loathing of the mild Calvin Coolidge.

True, social anger in America today too often betrays the impatience and ingratitude of a spoiled-brat society. In almost every corner of the planet live people who would sacrifice a good deal to trade their list of daily public angers for that of the average American. Has the good life ever been lived better than in California, which despite its laid-back image has for many years been a pacesetter for the anger agenda? California's per capita income—$32,702—puts it well ahead of the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. Yet Californians were so angered by a proposed tripling of the state's car tax that they recalled Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former bodybuilder best known for his movie role as the Terminator. As for the despised levy, it meant that the owner of a 2003 4x4 Chevrolet Suburban, retailing at $40,665, would have to pay a tax of $813.30 rather than $264.32. Small change, one might think, for the sort of consumer quite willing to add on such features as heated leather seats, an XM satellite radio system, and a DVD player for the kids. But flashpan anger in response to even slight threats to material well-being ultimately reflects the country's distinctive determination—sanctioned in its founding charter—to pursue happiness. (The Terminator's first official act as governor, needless to say, was to roll back the car tax.)

From the archives:

"One Nation, Slightly Divisible" (December 2001)
"In Red America they have QVC, the Pro Bowlers Tour, and hunting. In Blue America we have NPR, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and socially conscious investing." Do our differences effectively split us into two nations? By David Brooks

Of course, more might be accomplished if Americans could somehow manage to become as united in their anger as Californians seem to have been on the car tax. The clash between angry secular liberals and angry religiously motivated conservatives sometimes seems to generate little more than media din. But the rising partisanship of the American voter is probably a positive development. A country as big and diverse as the United States cannot avoid contentious fights over public-policy issues. A broad sorting of voters into a Red team and a Blue team—a trend harking back to the intense partisanship of the nineteenth century—is better than a European-style fragmentation of the electorate into numerous small parties, able to govern only after patching together fragile coalitions. The same Pew Research Center survey that found—tut-tut—a surge in the intensity of partisan feelings also turned up a decline in cynicism about government.

That makes sense. The Pragmatic American wouldn't be investing energies—and angers—in partisan causes if he or she didn't believe in the decent possibility of a payoff. America works as well as it does because of the practical use it makes of its anger. Now the country is getting angry again. Perhaps it is not angry enough.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/01/the-angry-american/302885/