Politics & Policy

The Liberalitarian Dust-Up

The Angry Left rebukes a would-be friend.

Politics is about passions as well as ideas and the passion that has dominated American politics for at least a decade is anger.  Conservatives got worked up over Clinton; Democrats got worked up over Clinton’s impeachment; and Gore’s slow motion concession in the 2000 election set the stage for the Left’s six long years of gathering rage. Early in 2006, a furious debate broke out between Republicans and Democrats, each accusing the other of harboring excesses of anger.

I devote a chapter of my new book (A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now) to tracing how American politics got infected with a distinctly contemporary style of anger that I call New Anger. This is the anger of show-offs and eager-to-ignite match-heads. It had been gaining ground in American culture for decades before arriving in mainstream politics.  When it did arrive in politics, New Anger found homes on both the Left (e.g. Howard Dean) and Right (e.g. Ann Coulter), but the Left provided much more commodious quarters.

When I discuss the Left’s embrace of New Anger with people across the political spectrum, two not very satisfactory explanations keep coming up. One is that the party that is out of power has more to gripe about. Yes, but that doesn’t explain why the Left gravitated to a form of anger that exacerbated its unpopularity. Nor, why the Right, in similar circumstances kept its New Anger aficionados on the margins.

The other explanation that comes up, almost always from people on the Left, is that the extreme anger has an extreme cause. It is President Bush’s fault, because he has provoked beyond measure everyone outside his own Right-wing extremist base. According to this view, those on the Left who have resorted to flamboyant expressions of anger have done so because they are dealing with a historically unprecedented destruction by President Bush of the governing norms of American political discourse.

I think this explanation is even more dubious, requiring as it does a broad caricature of how President Bush has governed. In my book, I argue that the Left’s embrace of New Anger arises from something deeper: a generations-long shift in American culture and family life that connects much more profoundly with the Left’s worldview than with the conservative outlook.

Can I prove this? As an anthropologist attempting to make sense of subtle cultural shifts, I often have to settle for plausibility, not proof. But every once in a while something very much like a proof just falls, like an apple on Isaac Newton’s head. Case in point: New Republic Jonathan Chait’s response to a proposal from Brink Lindsey, vice president for research at the Cato Institute.

Let me start with a disclaimer. I don’t know Jonathan Chait. He may be a charming fellow, a good sport, and an excellent dinner companion. I have no bones to pick with him. In what follows, my concern is with the public role that Jonathan Chait has decided to play.

Lindsey to Dems: Come Hither

Libertarians have been fretting for several years over the rise of big-government conservatism and the increasingly prominent role played by social conservatives in the Republican party. In early December, armed with a new study that purports to show that as much as 13 percent of the national vote is swayed by libertarian convictions, Lindsey proposed in the pages of The New Republic (“Liberaltarianism”) that liberals turn to libertarians to form a new electoral alliance. Lindsey’s article caught the eye of Jonah Goldberg and others on “The Corner,” who looked at it skeptically but treated Lindsey himself with respect. But if anyone thought that mainstream American liberalism might welcome Lindsey’s overture, we learned otherwise a few weeks later, when TNR editor Chait replied. Chait treated Lindsey’s idea with withering disdain (“Kiss Me, Cato,” December 25; teased online as “TNR to Libertartians: Drop Dead!”). 

In Chait’s view, libertarians vastly overrate their own numbers and their electoral importance; and Chait characterizes Lindsey’s proposed alliance as a fool’s bargain in which liberals would have to “agree simply to eviscerate” popular social programs including Social Security and Medicare. Chait concludes his riposte by invoking the scene in The Godfather, Part II, in which Michael Corleone responds to a corrupt politician who, after hurling a vicious insult, is asking for a bribe: “You can have my answer now if you like. My offer is this: nothing.”

Chait’s reply is notable not so much for his arguments as for his emotional style. Indeed, his tone of gloating nastiness and contumely so outshines the substance of his essay as to be its real point. Diplomatically telling Lindsey “thanks, but no thanks” would have sufficed if Chait had simply wanted to turn the proposal aside. Evidently, Chait wanted something more.

Theater of Rage

Chait’s response I think is best understood as a kind of political theater — a special kind of theater in which the performer enacts rage and attempts symbolically to annihilate his opponent. The performer in this drama looks for the applause of an audience that savors rhetorical grand guignol. Angry Left blogs such as the Daily Kos and Eschaton churn this stuff out by the yard, but mainstream print journalism has mostly steered clear of the style. Chait is one of a handful of mainstream opinion journalists (Paul Krugman is another) to dive in.

I come to this event with no special interest in the question, “Wither the libertarians?” Rather, I think Chait’s response to Lindsey is important for what it demonstrates about the temperament of the contemporary Left. It is the proof that the American Left’s anger is ultimately not about Bush.

In A Bee in the Mouth, I argue that Chait is a pivotal figure, a smart, well-informed political observer who is also the man who brought the Left’s visceral anger against Bush out into the open and made mere declaration of anger a respectable medium for mainstream liberals. Chait’s response to Lindsey offers me an opportunity to update my argument. Chait now shows definitely that his angry rhetoric cannot be explained as a one-time response to what he sees as the exceptional wickedness of President Bush. Rather, Chait’s anger in this case is directed at a would-be ally, which is just plain strange. Dismissing an unwanted valentine doesn’t usually require heavy armament.

Chait’s dust-up with Lindsey also contrasts with the tone of other commentators on Lindsey’s proposal, including Goldberg, but also Ramesh Ponnuru, Jonathan Adler, and Fred Smith, all of whom make their points within the bounds of conventional civility.  Smith’s comment captures the general tone of this colloquy:

 

Our goal [is] to reach out to our liberal friends, seeking to restore their former faith in decentralization of power as a preferable way of helping the little guy.

 

Conservatives might well have risen in anger at Lindsey, whose TNR essay says some pretty stinging things about his erstwhile allies. But if conservatives are mad at Lindsey, they haven’t said so. Libertarians might also be angry with Lindsey, who was after all shilling their votes. But libertarians too seem to have taken the matter calmly. Lindsey’s own response to Chait’s article (“You Really Need Us”) is a model of decorum. So why did Chait adopt the persona of a gravely insulted Michael Corleone? Let’s go back.

Breaking a Taboo

In September 2003, Chait notoriously opened an essay (“Mad about You,” The New Republic):

 

I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it. I think his policies rank him among the worst presidents in U.S. history. And, while I am tempted to leave it at that, the truth is that I hate him for less substantive reasons, too. I hate the inequitable way he has come to his economic and political achievements and his utter lack of humility […]

 

“Mad About You” broke a long-standing taboo in serious political journalism. Before the article few would have thought that “I hate President George W. Bush,” was a respectable argument — or any argument at all. But Chait’s declaration somehow changed the chemistry of liberal political rhetoric. In the months that followed the article, declaring that one detested President Bush moved from the fringes to become a mainstream way for many liberals to articulate their political passion.

Anger at political adversaries, of course, is nothing new. Reflecting on the intensification of political anger in the last few years, some commentators have pointed to the extraordinary acrimony between partisans of Jefferson and Adams in the 1800 election as proof that the nation has seen worse. But that comparison misses something. Go back and read the vitriolic diatribes of 1800 and you will find numerous attacks on Jefferson as a would-be tyrant and a man of low morals; and numerous attacks on Adams as a scoundrel who would sell the nation back to the British. But you will nothing remotely like, “I hate Thomas Jefferson,” or “I hate John Adams.”

Why not? Americans in 1800 certainly knew what political anger was but they faced powerful restraints. George Washington, who was completing his second term, was a living reproof to those who couldn’t control their anger. He was known to be a man of quick temper who, by dint of hard effort, smothered it. That was the ideal. Children were taught from a young age that they had to master their anger, and that to fail at this was to own a morally serious flaw. Politics, being inherently oppositional, is bound to test such a principle. The newspapers and pamphlets of 1800 are full of Jeremiads, hard-hitting satire, and libelous personal attacks, and the writers give the impression (usually behind the mask of a pseudonym) of enjoying the rollicking pleasure of their verbal extravagance.

But there it stops. As far as I can tell, the partisan writings of 1800 never venture into the logic of, “Listen to me because I am really, really angry,” or, “The extremity of my anger proves the righteousness of my cause,” or, “Behold my disdain! It is a thing of wonder.” Those are some of the ways to tell the difference between the traditional forms of political anger and New Anger in its political manifestations. New Anger is about flaunting one’s anger as a kind of credential. It is a way of asserting one’s authenticity and, according to its own cultural logic, moving from authenticity to authority. Its essential message is, “I am to be believed and reckoned with because I am angry.”

Chait, as I said, is a key figure in bringing New Anger into mainstream Democratic politics, but New Anger itself had been churning through American culture for several decades. Think of Jimi Hendrix de-constructing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his Stratocaster guitar, or John McEnroe on the tennis court reviling his own fans. The shift from a culture that prized self-control to a culture that prizes self-expression has unfolded over at least two generations. New Anger débuted as a political stance at the Yippie-inspired protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The riots, the spectacle of the Chicago Seven’s contempt for American culture at their trial, and the movement’s subsequent turn to terrorism, drained away the sense that this sort of anger had a welcome place in serious politics. New Anger, however, didn’t entirely dissipate. Rather, it settled into other domains of life. New Anger went on to flourish in music, sports, movies, and family life before it, once again, reached out to politics. All those people seeking to “empower” themselves in their private lives through angry expression, however, were destined sooner or later to think that narcissistic anger could work in public life as well.

Freedom to Hate

Chait’s “I hate President George W. Bush” essay turned out to be the signal that New Anger was waiting for. “There I said it,” wrote Chait, implying, Yes, I’ve long felt this but I was constrained not to put it into so many words. Now I’m free. Readers understood: henceforth they too would be free to present a firm declaration of anger as though it were the functional equivalent of intellectual analysis, evidence, and argument wrapped up into one.

My account of how New Anger came bubbling up in Chait’s 2003 article like the Texas crude in Jeb Clampit’s swamp, probably does not correspond with Chait’s own view of the matter. In February 2006, when Ken Mehlman had characterized Hillary Clinton as having “a lot of anger,” Chait offered a rebuttal on Hugh Hewitt’s radio interview program. Hillary, he said, “is just the opposite of angry. I think she’s robotic, passionless, dull.” It’s a revealing statement. Some might think the “opposite of angry” would be warm, friendly, and engaging.  But New Anger casts anger as an altogether enlivening force, so that the “opposite” of anger becomes lifelessness: robotic, passionless, and dull. Fortunately for George Washington, when we had a new republic, we didn’t have Chait’s version of The New Republic. What Washington’s contemporaries commended as his dignified self-control, would by these lights, be a woeful lack of zesty anger.

In that interview, Chait went on to say that, “The whole notion of anger [in politics] is just weird and misplaced.” Hewitt, noticing that Chait seemed to be disavowing the notion and applying it at the same time, pressed him, and Chait added that he didn’t let his feelings get in the way of his being “cool and rational in analyzing what Bush does.” He distinguished his own emotion from the “rage” he saw among Republicans. Hewitt then read back to him the opening of “I hate President George W. Bush,” and succeeded in getting only Chait’s tepid admission that his language “might” have sounded like anger. 

Libertarian Sarcasm

Which brings me back to Brink Lindsey and the possibility of a libertarian-liberal “fusion.” Libertarians come to the table with emotions too. Resentment over the “big government” turn in the Republican party and dismay over the increasing influence of “values conservatives” are apparent. Libertarians by and large see themselves as highly rational and committed to a principled calculation of where they should stand on a given issue. But as anyone who has ever touched a libertarian nerve can testify, libertarians also tend to be argumentative, sarcastic, and rude. Perhaps that is the influence of Ayn Rand, or maybe it comes from the conviction that libertarians see the pure light of rationality but are doomed to be ruled by their purblind inferiors. Here, for example, is an anonymous libertarian responding on a message board to a comment by Jonah Goldberg:

 

Yeah, I’m going to take advice from Jonah Goldberg about how the conservatives are more friendly to liberty.

“Don’t go looking for someone who doesn’t beat you honey. Nobody else loves you like I do. Especially not that suave Democrat. He’ll just beat you worse. Trust me. I can change, we just need counseling.”

Just say no to Battered Voter Syndrome.

 

More than a few libertarians indulge in New Anger-ish vituperation against their foes on issues such as illegal immigration and gay marriage. And the general tone of libertarians towards the undecided provides numerous lessons in how not to win friends and influence people.

So, having been rather hard on Chait for his heated response to Lindsey, let me acknowledge that he faced a difficult task. Even addressing himself to so thoughtful and well-mannered a libertarian as Lindsey, he was bound to address the libertarian crowd as well, and he might have considered that the best defense is a good offense.

Libertarian sarcasm, however, only now and then dips all the way into the well of New Anger. That’s because the libertarian is caged in his self-image as someone who is moved by enlightened self-interest and rational thought. His anger, he mistakenly thinks, is just a good tool for getting his point across. By contrast, New Anger in its pure form is its own point. The Newly Angry are moved by a sense that they are most authentic, most transcendently themselves, when they are unleashing their anger. New Anger is the narcissistic self in high dudgeon.

Perhaps this can be added to the many reasons why “liberaltarianism” won’t work. It is an emotional mismatch.  Cindy Sheehan just isn’t a good mate for Sherlock Holmes.

 

 – Peter Wood is author of a Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now.

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