We’re living in the era of “authenticity.”
Once upon a time, human beings strove not to be authentic — at least not in public. Self-control was predicated on the idea that our most authentic selves had to be overcome by reason and civility. Sure, you hated Bob from accounting — but you were a better person because you never said so, and you treated Bob decently whenever you saw him. The book of Proverbs suggested, “Fools give vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.” Ecclesiastes recommended, “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.” And Aristotle suggested that anger, while useful, should only be channeled in service of reason.
The same held true in politics. Every so often, politicians would go at each other with aplomb, no-holds-barred. But for the most part, aggression was somewhat taboo, at least in public interactions. Ronald Reagan’s attitude toward Jimmy Carter wasn’t one of unbridled rage; it was one of bemusement. JFK’s attitude toward Republicans was similarly dismissive. The rule was relatively simple: Passion was fine, but the best politicians were the ones who could control their passion, letting it loose only on rare occasions.
Thanks to the ubiquity of social media, however, those who withhold their true emotions are now seen as inauthentic. Reason must never trump anger — allowing reason to trump anger is a sign of insincerity.
Authenticity lies in emotive displays. Thus, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) is inauthentic for stating that civility ought to still be a priority in public life; Representative Maxine Waters (D., Calif.), by contrast, represents the apotheosis of authenticity, thanks to her public pronouncement in support of mobbing political opponents at gas stations. She’s “Auntie Maxine.” Thus, Auntie Maxine chided Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) for doing “anything that they think is necessary to protect their leadership.” She was cheered for it.
The same holds true of new Democratic stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist who has been hailed as the avatar of the new Leftism, or Bernie Sanders, who channeled the supposed rage of the youth, or Donald Trump, the man who captured the anger of conservatives. Overt displays of fury act as predicates to trust: We know we can trust people who can’t control themselves, or who won’t control themselves. They’re not lying to us.
The problem is that once anger becomes a metric of authenticity, the incentives to public anger grow exponentially. Instead of spending our time engaged in productive discussion, we spend our time slamming each other — and earning larger and larger audiences. Then, when anyone objects, we simply label them inauthentic schoolmarms. Anger becomes its own justification.
The result is worse policy, because authentic anger in politics generally stems from frustration — and frustration in the freest, most prosperous country in world history generally stems from extremism. Thus, the angriest members of our politics are those who believe that an apocalypse is imminent, requiring immediate mob justice to avert; they are the conspiratorial thinkers who see every societal problem as a symptom of deeper ills that require the destruction of entire institutions. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times, in praising the newly rising socialists of the Democratic party, puts it this way: “They often seem less panicked about what is happening in America right now than liberals are, because they believe they know why our society is coming undone, and how it can be rebuilt.”
This is toxic cycle must be broken by reason and decency, but those two elements are in short supply.
Utopianism breeds extremism; extremism breeds frustration; frustration breeds anger; anger breeds authenticity, and thus popularity. And that popularity breeds more utopianism. This is toxic cycle must be broken by reason and decency, but those two elements are in short supply — and are seen by too many Americans as evidence of lack of commitment, rather than as necessary preconditions to a workable politics.
Our addiction to anger must stop. Anger may be authentic, but there’s no reason to trust angry people to wield power responsibly.