Opinion: Let's address anger in New Year
'Tis the season to be angry. The president is angry at the Democrats for not allocating enough money to build the border wall. The Democrats are angry at the president for wanting one.
Civil servants are angry at both parties for closing the government and putting thousands on furlough. We're all angry at Congress and the president for playing politics rather than paying attention to what's best for the country.
Jim Mattis, secretary of defense, was so angry when the president said he would withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Syria that he delivered his letter of resignation to take effect at the end of February. The president was so angry when he read it that he made it effective on the first of January.
Anger is the animating force in Washington.
During the holiday season, we're warned about office parties and fraternizing with the opposite sex because drinking reduces sexual self-restraint. But today we're warned to be wary of drinking the bubbly with those of a different political persuasion lest anger becomes personal (or worse).
Everybody's angry at the government over something, but are we really angrier than at other times in our history? Or does anger simply have a larger megaphone on cable television and social media, making us feel tied tighter to the political moment?
Remember how Nikki Haley, as governor of South Carolina, rebutted President Obama's final State of the Union address, warning against anger as a guide. "During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices," she said. "We must resist that temptation." She was taking aim at Donald Trump, the leading presidential candidate in a crowded field, who hurled insults at her during the campaign. But when he was elected president, he chose her to be ambassador to the United Nations. Anger did not ultimately determine their political relationship, and she served at the United Nations with particular distinction.
In a provocative cover story for The Atlantic titled "Why Are We So Angry?" Charles Duhigg writes that the tenor of public anger is becoming less episodic and more persistent, a constant drumbeat in our lives that may have accelerated under Trump but did not begin with him: "On both the left and the right, a visceral disdain for one's political opponents has become common, as have feelings of schadenfreude when the other side suffers a setback."
He cites findings of political scientists at Emory University that showed a radical change in attitude toward each party's presidential nomination in 2016. In 2012, less than 50 percent of the voters "said they were deeply angry at the other party's presidential nominee." That number leaped to almost 70 percent in 2016. Anger was contagious.
The Pew Research Center confirms angry attitudes extending to a candidate's supporters. In 2016, almost half of Republicans believed that Democrats are immoral, dishonest and lazy. More than 70 percent of Democrats said Republicans are more closed-minded than other Americans, and more than 30 percent said Republicans are more unethical and unintelligent.
Anger soared against the government. In 2001, Pew found that only 8 percent of Americans said they were angry at the federal government, but by 2013, that had tripled. "If we diagnose our anger problem as merely a Trump problem," says Duhigg, "we'll be sorely disappointed when he eventually departs public life and we remain enraged."
Of course, we must discriminate in judging anger. It was easy to applaud Sen. Lindsey Graham when he directed outrage toward his Democratic colleagues for their sloppy accusations at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Generalized anger, on the other hand, only pours fuel on rhetorical fire.
That's what happened when former Attorney General Eric Holder revised Michelle Obama's credo. "When they go low, we kick 'em," he said. "That's what this new Democratic Party is about." The former first lady had actually prescribed going high in return for low blows. Big difference. Holder later clarified his exhortation to say he was speaking metaphorically. Oh.
Martin Luther King Jr. described himself as an angry man, but he knew it's not enough to be angry. Anger must unite people as a transforming force for good. Such a unifier is not immediately at hand today. Rather than looking back in anger, we seem to be looking forward to it. Not a happy way to enter the new year.
Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's "Paradise Lost."