The Democrats have apparently discovered the fountain of political youth: rage. Speaking last week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), a crazed elderly loon recently spotted wandering around the country shouting about wealth inequality while closing on a second vacation home, stated, “You should be angry. Take your anger out on the right people.” Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, speaking to Politico, explained: “If we only turn that anger inward, I fear we become the permanent part of opposition. Over the next couple months, we’d better get our act together.”
The Democrats are late to the game. During the 2016 election cycle, Republicans expressed their anger routinely and richly. Trump himself cultivated that anger. As Ian Tuttle rightly wrote at National Review in 2015, “Many conservatives are having their Howard Beale moment: They’re mad as hell, and they don’t want to sit down and take it anymore.”
Now, anger is nothing new in politics. Anger has dominated political discourse since the times of the Bible (ask Moses how he felt about a stiff-necked people seemingly ready to throw him overboard every few weeks). And some anger is justified. If you are angry at corruption in Washington, D.C., you have every right to be. If you are angry at a heedless leviathan grasping at your wages, that anger is justified. Even if you channel that emotion in the wrong direction, we can at least understand the anger.
But something new has happened to American politics in the last few years: Politicians have realized that the simplest path to power is to humor everyone’s anger. If you take someone’s anger from them, you’ve emotionally castrated them. More important, you run the risk of driving them into the arms of someone who will feed their anger — an anger that will now turn on you for the sin of having discounted that anger in the first place.
This is deeply unhealthy.
One of the great lies of psychology, dominant since the era of Freud, is that coddling emotions leads to more emotional fulfillment. Actually, coddling emotions leads to emotional unhealthiness. It leads us to wallow in our emotions. Anger feels good — and it feels even better when someone tells you that you’re not wrong to be angry in the first place. If you crave emotional payoff, and if those around you are taught to cosset your emotions, you’re likely to engage more and more often in emotionally overwrought behavior. Bad psychologists indulge their clients’ emotional states. Good psychologists ask whether those emotional states are justified.
As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (among others) states, cognitive behavioral therapy, a technique used to treat those with emotional disorders, is generally as effective as antidepressants for anxiety and depression. Therapy consists of identifying illogical links in a chain of thought that leads to an emotionally hazardous place. You might figure out, for example, that you’re attributing motives to someone even though you have no evidence about his motives, or that you overgeneralize, or that you’re looking only at the bad things in your life rather than at the good things as well. Once you’ve identified your own faulty thinking, you can stop the emotional runaway train.
Politicians are trained to do the opposite.
Politicians spend their lives seeking the favor of others. That means they find it wildly beneficial to nurse the emotions of constituents — the customer, of course, is always right!
Politicians spend their lives seeking the favor of others. That means they find it wildly beneficial to nurse the emotions of constituents — the customer, of course, is always right! It means that if a constituent is angry, the best option isn’t to help break the chain of emotional volatility — it’s to channel that volatility into the beating back of enemies. If you wonder why generic congressional support is so low, but support for local incumbents is so high, this is why: Your local congressman hears you and understands you, but the faraway government, full of cronies and fools, simply doesn’t. On a national level, such pandering has become endemic: It’s why Hillary Clinton presided over the intersectional Olympics in 2016 (in which voters must be constantly reassured that their anger at alleged victimhood isn’t illegitimate), and why Trump spends inordinate time talking about Rust Belt voters (who must be reassured that their anger at the system — and China and Mexico! — is worthwhile).
All of which makes for a toxic politics.
The Founders knew that public passions were constantly at risk of demagoguery. It’s why they weren’t democrats. They believed in a system that would check passion with passion, and they believed in a system in which each politician would be forced to answer to so many different factions that he would be incapable of satisfying all of them. In Federalist No. 10, Madison eloquently laid out the problem of demagoguery. His answer: gridlock. Federalism; various legislative entities; passions incapable of satisfaction at the governmental level. Without such a system, Madison wrote, the despotism of the majority would rule: “If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control.”
Madison wasn’t wrong to rely on the intricate framework of American government as a bulwark against the perverse passions of the majority. But he also relied on local interests to supersede national interest — and diffusion of power to defeat virtually all interests. The growth of the federal government has rendered such notions obsolete. On the one hand, local interests can now dictate national interests — President Trump can cater to the anger of a factory worker by promising tariffs that affect everyone in small ways. On the other hand, every local politician can now campaign nationally — Eric Garcetti barely presides over the potholes in Los Angeles, but he’s seen as a national face for his party.
The result: a national pathology.
The only cure: Americans must get real. And that means, unfortunately, that politicians must be brave. They must tell voters when their anger is both misplaced and unearned. They must be willing to stand with truth rather than with the power of sympathy. If they don’t, the anger that politicians have attempted to channel for their own ends will eventually burst loose in ways those politicians never anticipated.