Is the Anger in American Politics Good or Bad?

May 28th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

As I have written about several times (here and here and here), the blogosphere and, more generally, the “politicosphere” has gotten pretty darned ugly these days. Gone are the days of passionate though reasoned discourse and respectful disagreement. Where the focus was on the common good, practical solutions, and where differences could be worked out and compromises reached.

Welcome to the mixed martial arts cage matches of our modern political culture in which, on television, radio, the Web, and in the once hallowed halls of government, it is no-holds-barred and anything goes. Where the focus is on self-interest, ideology, and demonization of those with whom we disagree. And where the tone is angry, mean-spirited, dogmatic, insulting, and profoundly disrespectful.

The question is whether this decidedly uncivil form of discourse is truly harmful to our political system.

Several commenters on previous posts have contended that, historically and internationally, such raucous exchanges have been the norm and our current tone is no different. But to equate the exchanges found in, say, the English Parliament, with our present tone is akin to likening a slingshot to an atomic bomb, given the vehemence, volume, and sheer number that are a part of the current politicosphere.

Some commenters have maintained that this tone is the price we pay for more ways to express our Second Amendment right to freedom of speech; more people have a soapbox to stand on than ever before. Certainly, when more people have a voice, there will be more engagement by citizens and that makes for a more open and vibrant democracy.

I agree that the new media has been a boon to sharing ideas in the politicosphere. Ideally, much like a volleyball game, the goal should be to receive ideas and then volley them back until one side can’t return them. Unfortunately, the ever- expanding universe of new media has given rise to an industry of misinformation and anger, the goal of which is to repel ideas that conflict with one’s own and lob ideological hand grenades back with the intention of destroying the enemy. Passionate debates have morphed into fierce battles bent on ideological domination.

Others make the case that anger is healthy because it is motivating and can catalyze political change. That is hard to disagree with if you look at the civil rights and anti-war movements. The current anger expressed by the Tea Party movement has already had an impact on American politics. And, as one commenter noted, better an enraged rant on a blog than a gun or bomb. But fury that is unfocused and misdirected, as much of the current anger is, can do more harm than good, acting to polarize people and sever lines of communication.

In sum, though these points all seem reasonable, they do not, I believe, justify the current direction we are heading in our politicosphere.

In my discussions advocating civil political discourse, I am often accused of encouraging timid or politically correct discussion, people to surrender their beliefs in the name of accommodation, or to just be more agreeable; that is how many people interpret “civil.” But civility, for me, involves treating others with dignity (“Do unto others….”) and engaging in substantive discourse that is, at the same time, vigorous and honest, and respectful and reasoned. As I noted in a previous post, my basic rule of discourse is that if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face or in front your grandmother, don’t say it.

I draw the line between civil and uncivil political discourse when someone moves from a focus on substance to a focus on the person. I also draw the line when passion for an issue turns into anger and insult directed at the person (think of all the name calling that goes on in the politicosphere). The current politicosphere has lost respect, reason, and tolerance. Can a civilized culture remain so in their absence? I don’t think so.

(This article was also published at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)


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15 Responses to “Is the Anger in American Politics Good or Bad?”



  1. larry ennis |

    Jim
    You have to admit that the tea party is making a difference. Although their full effect has yet to be determined their following continues to grow. The American electorate has been awakened to the fact that we are in some real trouble. Our elected officials have betrayed us. To blame any single administration is missing the mark. What we’re experiencing today are the cumulative mistakes and greed of at least two decades.

    You make it sound like this up rising by the tea party is both unjust and uncalled for. Of course we know that freedom of speech as guaranteed in the First Amendment(not the Second)is the right of everyone. Liberals never seem to remember that fact. Your side has been using the demonstration tactic for years. The conservatives have until now been far less vocal. Now that the tea party is gaining momentum, liberals such as yourself are starting to decry their actions.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the void between the right and left is getting wider. Until the liberal/progressive people back off on reshaping America the hostilities will only increase. I feel safe in saying that your side is vastly underestimating the tenaciousness and resolve of the rest of us.


  2. Tom Carter |

    The tea party movement is not going to amount to much beyond the November elections, but they might influence things in November if they make Republicans and moderate Democrats pay attention. That seems to be happening. Beyond this next election, though, these folks, who are already mostly Republicans, will have to either form a third party or remain closely tied to the Republican Party because they’re really not an organized group.

    Larry, you need to get your consciousness beyond the “us” and “them” paradigm. It seems that in order for you to even discuss issues, you have to first categorize the other guy as one of “them.” Jim’s article is not particularly liberal or conservative, by any measure. And the only way you seem to be able to see politics today is the need for liberals and progressives to “back off” their beliefs. What you really need to hope for is that the ranting extremists of the right and their counterparts of the left will be largely ignored, while moderate conservatives and moderate liberals actually work together to get things done.


  3. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Larry: The Tea Party has made a difference, though its staying power remains to be seen. But I don’t think I suggested that it was unjust or uncalled for. And thanks for correcting my Second Amendment mistake; it had been a long day and I just got finished writing something about the Second.

    Re: “Until the liberal/progressive people back off on reshaping America the hostilities will only increase.” I’m pretty darned sure that “your side” is trying to reshape America as well. We both are based on our own ideologies.

    @Tom: I agree with you. If the TPers want to have some power, they will have moderate their beliefs (or actions) because, the reality is that, for most of America (the middle of the political spectrum and the largest bloc of voters that the Dems and Repubs need to woo), their views are a bit too out there.
    As to your last paragraph, well said!


  4. Dan Miller |

    Jim,

    I fear that we may still have a small bone or two to pick.

    In your Huffington Post article, as it appeared when I quoted it here, you commented,

    The reality is that, for these extremists, when ideology comes face to face with the facts, facts are the victim. You need look no further than the birthers, truthers, death panelists, and Sarah Palin devotees to see the profound disconnect from fact for those who hold extreme ideologies. (emphasis added)

    For me, at least, that set the tone for all that followed. Since then, your article seems to have been modified significantly so that the earlier quoted portion now says,

    The reality is that, for these extremists, when ideology comes face to face with the facts, facts are the victim. You need look no further than the daily news to watch or read about people who have a profound disconnect between fact and belief.

    Nor can I find elsewhere in the amended article any reference to the earlier disparaged miscreants of the right. I am glad that you made the change.

    I have no particular problem with the amended version; my problem was with the references – beyond which we were originally said to have no need to look further – to the “birthers” (who I think are wasting their time and providing a focus for disparagement regardless of whether their views may be right or wrong), the “truthers,” who seem to assemble such a goodly collection of fruitcakes on all sides of the aisle that it often looks like Christmas, death panelists – and it does now seem likely that under the new Health Control law there will be rationing – and Governor Palin who, though wildly disparaged by the media during the campaign and even now, offered, in my view, some good ideas.

    As to the tea party movement, I think it has great potential for good rather than bad. Of course there are a few nuts, perhaps none quite as strange as Congressman Johnson who opined in all seriousness that the stationing of US troops might cause Guam to capsize. I wrote about the tea party movement here and you might find interesting my comments on how there are three basic principles – “respect for the Constitution, America’s safety, and minimal governmental meddling” and how the diverse collection of tea party individuals can make a difference only if those are the focal point. There are some pretty smart folks in it (along with some who aren’t). One of those whom I most admire is LTC Allen West, who managed here to offer better ideas on the situation in Afghanistan than I had heard before or have heard since.

    Clearly, there needs to be respect for people expressing ideas, no matter how odd those ideas may seem to others. Here, I tried to adapt an “Artificial God” notion offered by Douglas Adams to suggest that one may be needed in US society for those (including me) who do not believe in God and that respect for the basic Judeo-Christian concepts on which the United States was founded is important.

    As to this statement,

    Unfortunately, the ever- expanding universe of new media has given rise to an industry of misinformation and anger, the goal of which is to repel ideas that conflict with one’s own and lob ideological hand grenades back with the intention of destroying the enemy. Passionate debates have morphed into fierce battles bent on ideological domination.

    It has. However, in my view, the problem lies as much with the old media as the new.


  5. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Dan: Yes, I decided to make my post apolitical so that it would appeal to a wider audience.

    I must admit that I struggle with being either snarky and pro-liberal and balanced and open to a wider audience. Being snarky is fun and I do think, as you suggest, some groups deserve it. At the same time, I can’t be too hypocritical about talking the talk vs. walking the walk on being civil.

    Re: “there needs to be respect for people expressing ideas, no matter how odd those ideas may seem to others.” I’m not sure I agree with that. The reality is that there are facts out there that are indisputable (e.g., Obama’s birthplace), yet some deny that fact. Those people do not deserve respect or attention in my view. At the same time, much of politics is opinion and, as long as those opinions don’t diverge from the preponderance of fact, such opinions deserve to be heard.

    Rationing? Unlikely. Death panels? Come on!

    Yes, old media has a role, but it acted as a filter to the lunatic fringe (at either end of the political spectrum). Now there are no filters! That, as I have noted, as upsides, but it also has profound downsides.

    So, in the end, I don’t see too many bones to pick…

    Okay, maybe one. I would encourage you to write a post focusing on all of the “good ideas” that Sarah Palin has offered (that were truly her own).


  6. Dan Miller |

    Jim,

    “Rationing” has become a code word. During World War II, we all knew what it meant: wait in lines for what little butter, tires and gasoline were available, present your ration coupons and money, accept what was available and go home. Often, whenever a line was spotted, people joined; something must be available and whatever it might be had to be got while the getting was good. That sort of rationing is no longer in place. Now, expensive and even moderately priced food, houses, automobiles, vacations and most everything else is rationed in the sense that those with financial and other resources can have them and others can’t. Any President of the United States has immediate access to excellent health care which very few do; those with such access have bigger and better ration coupons than the rest of us. “Death panels?” Probably not in the sense of this short story I wrote years ago, but I don’t know what medical care in the United States will be like when the new law has finally been read and digested and the multiple regulatory actions taken to implement it go into effect. There is much speculation but there are few “facts.” Perhaps limits on end-of-life medical care will be implemented; perhaps it’s not such a bad idea. I am currently writing an article encouraging the loosening of some restrictions on assisted suicide; it is a difficult article to write but may be useful.

    All sides reduce concepts to bumper stickers short enough to fit on the smallest and most economical cars, and that’s a shame.

    As to ideas offered by Governor Palin “that were truly her own” or by Senator McCain “that were truly [his] own, precious few such are offered by anyone. After thousands of years of what passes for civilization, there is a lot of recycling going on. I can’t off hand think of any ideas offered by President Obama “that were truly [his] own.” Ditto VP Biden. Many in the international sphere adopted by President Obama hark back to President Wilson, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and others of the time. Churchill, writing in The Gathering Storm of the years leading up to World War II, noted

    We must regard as deeply blameworthy before history . . . [all British parties] during this fatal period. Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the State, genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation . . . . the strong and violent pacifism which at this time dominated the Labour-Socialist Party, the utter devotion of the Liberals to sentiment apart from reality . . . . constituted a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which even so far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience.

    Nor am I aware of any ideas offered by President Obama in the domestic field, “that were truly [his] own.” Perhaps you can enlighten me on some.


  7. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Tom: As to your paragraph about rationing, you put it best, “There is much speculation but there are few “facts.”” Exactly. So let’s not be declaring Armageddon and wait and see what happens. Anything else is just fear mongering.

    As to your paragraph about Sarah Palin, you, intentionally or otherwise, used the old bait and switch distraction strategy. I don’t recall our discussion being about Obama or Biden or anyone else. You said that Sarah Palin has some good ideas. I challenged you to present them. Instead of doing so, you shifted the discussion away from her onto the tangential issue of “has anyone said anything original?” That tells me that you don’t have a reasonable retort to my question.

    We can have a discussion about Obama et al. at another time, but right now you are just avoiding the topic at hand.

    BTW, I enjoy our exchanges. They are intellectually rigorous and you (and others) don’t allow weak arguments. So I have to be sharp and thorough and clear. Excellent mental “weight lifting!”


  8. d |

    Sarah Palins’ best idea was to wag her children on stage,everywhere she went,and to pretend that her daughters’ b.f. was,indeed her b.f.,not just a roll in the hay,literally. Hmmm,maybe to kill all and any living creature, that she could eat,with a gun. She needs to go hide under a rock in Alaska,from where you can see Russia.:)


  9. Dan Miller |

    Jim — I am the culprit, not Tom.

    As to Governor Palin, I said that she had some “good ideas.” You requested that I elaborate but limit my response to those “that were truly her own.” The point I thought I was trying to make — and I am sorry if I did not make that sufficiently clear — was that there ain’t no such beast, emanating from Governor Palin, Senator McCain, President Obama, VP Biden or anyone else I can recall in the political arena. Perhaps Adam, before being meeting Eve, being beguiled by the snake and evicted from the Garden of Eden (if that ever happened) may have had some; unfortunately, I have not come across any of his early (or for that matter later) writings. Jesus may have coined the phrase translated eventually into “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you;” a good idea but hardly “truly [his] own.”

    At the moment, a few good but not all that original ideas put forth by Governor Palin come to mind: drilling for oil domestically, respect for the Second Amendment right to bear arms (no, not to bare arms) and in some respects her opposition to abortion. That said, I wish we didn’t need oil, foreign or domestic, I have never owned a firearm, and my condemnation of abortion is neither religion-based nor absolute. I do agree that those who oppose abortion on religious, ethical, medical and other grounds should not be required to pay for the abortions of others via taxation.


  10. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Dan (not Tom): You have vindicated yourself (not that you really needed to, of course).

    Point taken about “truly her own.” I would add that “good ideas” are entirely judged through the lens of our ideologies. What are good ideas for you are appalling ideas for others.

    As for Adam, my guess he never had an idea at all until (or even after) he met Eve. At least that was the way it was (is) with me and my wife! :->

    Ain’t civil discourse grand…


  11. Dan Miller |

    Jim,

    A thought just occurred to me. Here is one of the conservative rightist resources I review daily; it’s easy to sign up for an e-mail version of the daily posts and the price is right – free.

    If you would be so kind as to suggest a comparable liberal leftist resource, I would be pleased to review it and perhaps subscribe as well.


  12. Dan Miller |

    Perhaps more pertinent to an earlier thread, but here goes. As occasionally happens, sometimes irony, or satire, approaches reality. Here is an article about a bill introduced in the Michigan legislature to

    regulate reporters much like the state does with hairdressers, auto mechanics and plumbers. Patterson, who also practices constitutional law, says that the general public is being overwhelmed by an increasing number of media outlets–traditional, online and citizen generated–and an even greater amount [of] misinformation.

    * * * *

    According to the bill, reporters must provide the licensing board proof of:

    –“Good moral character” and demonstrate they have industry “ethics standards acceptable to the board.”

    –Possession of a degree in journalism or other degree substantially equivalent.

    –Not less than 3 years experience as a reporter or any other relevant background information.

    –Awards or recognition related to being a reporter.
    –Three or more writing samples

    Reporters will also have to pay an application and registration fee.

    The bill does not prevent reporters who are not licensed by the state from covering Michigan politics, and registering with the state would be voluntary.

    Patterson conceded that he didn’t actually think his bill would be enacted into law.  He says he’s winding down his two decade political career and wants to provoke public discussion before he leaves office.

    Oh well; I hope it does provoke a bit of public discussion.

    It probably has as much chance of passage as I have of rising bodily into Heaven to sit at the right hand of Allah, but it’s the thought(?) that counts.


  13. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    I read HuffPost, Daily Kos, and Talking Points Memo.


  14. Tom Carter |

    Interesting comments. As far as information sources, politicians and their ideas (or lack of), and civility are concerned, I’ve come to the conclusion that the far left and the far right are all the same, except for their opinions. The same, that is, in terms of their inflexibility, their insistence on demonizing those who disagree with them, their stubborn refusal to acknowledge (much less consider) inconvenient facts, their tendency to make mountains out of molehills, and their belief in outlandish and impossible conspiracy theories. Come to think of it, those are also the characteristics of small children. The difference is, small children have the potential to be educated and to develop into thinking adults who deserve to be taken seriously.

    I don’t mean to exclude libertarians from the discussion. I’m not talking about those who have a few libertarian instincts, as I do, of the “just leave me the hell alone” variety. A discussion with a real libertarian (which I always enjoy) is a full-blown and well-informed tour of constitutional history, political philosophy, and the purposes of government. After the discussion, however, the conclusion is always the same — good history and nice philosophy, but is there anything you propose that could actually be done?

    As always, it falls on the shoulders of moderates on both sides of the divide to actually do things and make things work. Liberals have to accept and support some conservative positions, and vice versa. Problem is, there may not be enough moderates at this point to carry the day. If there are, they’re either being too quiet, or they’re being shouted down by all the extremist wackos.

    A case in point: I’ve always been a great fan of the actor Martin Sheen. I watched The West Wing religiously, more than once. I even have the whole series on DVD. But I recently saw a couple of interviews that showed that my hero not only has feet of clay (which I knew had to be true) but that his feet are actually composed of wet mud. Turns out that Martin (along with his idiot progeny, Charlie) is actually a “truther.” Yep, he and his mentally challenged son both believe that the government was somehow, some way behind 9/11. I expect that kind of stupidity from a numbskull like Rosie O’Donnell, but President Bartlet? I was crushed.


  15. Brianna |

    “good history and nice philosophy, but is there anything you propose that could actually be done?”

    I’m pretty sure that one of the whole points of libertarian discussion is that the only thing they want done is lots of phaseouts of government programs. The government that governs best governs least.


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