The Politics Of Anger

On YouTube and talk radio, at town halls and rallies, voters seem to be angrier than they've been before. Host Guy Raz talks to journalist Sasha Abramsky about the origins of this wave of rage. Abramsky examined the phenomenon in a recent article called "Look Ahead in Anger." Raz also talks with politicians who've borne the brunt of the anger, including Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC).

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

About a week ago, California Congressman Brad Sherman, a Democrat, showed up for one of his regular town hall meetings with constituents. And at that meeting, Sherman was taken aback a bit when a constituent stood up with an unusual question.

Representative BRAD SHERMAN (Democrat, California): The question in question started off by saying that the Department of Justice had a policy not to prosecute any African-American for any crime if the victim was white.

RAZ: Now, the thing you should know about Brad Sherman is he's one of the most mild-mannered members of Congress, a hardworking, if a bit nerdy, public servant. And so Sherman politely answered that question.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. SHERMAN: I am extremely sure that we do not have a policy at the Department of Justice of never prosecuting a black defendant if the victim was white.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, you do.

(Soundbite of booing)

RAZ: This is par for the course nowadays for many, many members of Congress, mostly Democrats now for obvious reasons: They have the power, and they've used it to make some pretty fundamental changes. But an increasing number of legislators from both sides are asking whether the intersection of politics and politicized news has made the idea of civil discourse impossible.

Rep. SHERMAN: I mean, I remember extremely angry people on both sides of the Vietnam War, but they were both watching pretty much the same news every night. Now, you can have people living in their own separate worlds with their own sources of facts or alleged facts.

RAZ: And in this parallel universe, government becomes the biggest threat to Americans, especially the current government.

Mr. MARK LEVIN (Host, The Mark Levin Show): But a Marxist is going to be a Marxist is going to be a Marxist, and he appoints these people around him.

Mr. GLENN BECK (Television Host, Fox News Channel): We already know of at least five radical leftists currently advising the president of the United States.

Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Radio Host): And just as Obama's doing, Hitler - well, even prior to Hitler - German socialists attempted to remake and order their country using health care as the springboard and the foundation.

RAZ: Sounds pretty scary. Those are the voices of some top-rated populist media personalities.

We begin this hour with a look at the politics of anger. In a moment, a writer who argues that anger in and of itself has become a sort of ideology. But first to another congressman, South Carolina's Bob Inglis, a Republican.

Last month, he lost the primary to an opponent who is, at least publicly, angrier. Now, the American Conservative Union gives Bob Inglis a 93 percent lifetime rating.

Inglis is also a man who believes in the politics of civility. He was one of seven Republicans who supported a resolution condemning his fellow Republican, Congressman Joe Wilson, for shouting "you lie" at President Obama during a speech to Congress.

But that vote and a few others made Inglis the target of populist anger, anger he says motivated in part by what some people want to believe is true rather than what is actually true.

Representative BOB INGLIS (Republican, South Carolina): It's misinformation that passes as news. Then what you end up with is a public discourse that's not based on debating policy response to a common set of facts, but rather a discussion of whatever fact you want to allege is fact and then draw whatever conclusions you want to from that.

So that's, I think, a big change that we're seeing is in the blurring of the distinction between talk and news, we end up with a pretty wild discussion because the facts aren't held in common.

RAZ: Are you surprised at the level of anger you have seen?

Rep. INGLIS: It is surprising because I was in Congress for six years, and I was out of Congress for six years, and then I returned in '04 for another six years, and it's quite different now than it was in that first time in Congress.

RAZ: What do you make of this idea, this theory that some have floated that some of the anger is motivated by fear, sort of the fear of the changes that are happening in America, the demographics changes, and also the fact that our president is different, obviously is different from every president before him?

Rep. INGLIS: I think there's a fear that maybe the facts are going to show us that we are, in fact, all in this together. I think there's a sense that maybe if it's just somebody else's fault that we're here in this spot, facing a greased cliff that we could go over, then you can sort of blame it on somebody else.

And as to the president, I think that it is a challenge for some people to adjust to a fellow who has a name that's different than one they're used to hearing, of a different race, and we really need to be careful, I think, not to give racial explanations.

I heard one the other day, for example, that CRA, Community Reinvestment Act, is the cause of the financial collapse in October 2008.

RAZ: And CRA offered low-income Americans the opportunity to buy homes.

Rep. INGLIS: Actually, I was on a call-in show, and I said back to the caller something that, you know, I know politically you're not supposed to say. I said, how could it be? CRA has been around for decades. Why would it have suddenly caused a collapse of the economy?

If it's listed as a cause of what happened in October of '08, it's way on down the list. But unfortunately, some folks like to put it near the top of the list, and you can see how that, then, immediately raises the spectre of race as the reason we got to the spot that we're in, which it's not. It's not the cause.

RAZ: Do you think that the Republican Party, obviously a party in opposition, do you think the Republicans are playing it smart for this election year? I mean, do you think that by embracing certain ideas of the Tea Party, it's a good strategy?

Rep. INGLIS: I think it's never a good strategy to travel on misinformation. Talking about death panels when there are no death panels is a disservice to the country and, long-term, to the conservative movement.

Explaining the collapse or the near collapse of the banking system in October 2008 as the fault of the Community Reinvestment Act is clearly wrong, and long-term, it hurts the credibility of the movement.

So I think it's very important to build on credible solutions rather than offering misinformation that directs people towards scapegoats.

RAZ: Bob Inglis, thank you so much for your time.

Rep. INGLIS: Good to be with you.

RAZ: That's Republican Congressman Bob Inglis from South Carolina.

Now, writer Sasha Abramsky worries that the kind of rhetoric he hears nowadays threatens to swamp our politics, and he's written about it in the recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. His article is called "Look Ahead in Anger."

Mr. SASHA ABRAMSKY (Journalist; Author, "Look Ahead in Anger"): The title of the essay is a play on the 1950s film from England, "Look Back in Anger." And "Look Back in Anger" was very much about young people's reaction to decline of power, decline of influence, decline of empire.

And when I was writing this article, it seemed to me that we're at this moment where the American polity is increasingly being defined by a sense that the future is not going to look as rosy as the past.

And what I was looking at in this essay was what that does to our broader culture, what it does, if you like, to our collective psyche. And it seemed to me the more I researched this and the more I thought about it that one of the worst things it does to our collective psyche is it makes us angrier. It makes us more fearful. It makes us more bitter. And increasingly, it makes us want to shape our politics around those emotions.

RAZ: You argue that there is something new happening in America right now in our political discourse.

Mr. ABRAMSKY: That's right. I mean, if you look at anger and paranoia and rage, there's a rich vein of that in American history. The poli sci professor Richard Hofstetter, half a century ago wrote a very, very famous essay about the paranoid style in American politics. And he said, look, the paranoia that you see in groups like the John Birch Society is as American as apple pie.

But until fairly recently, the apple pie, the Norman Rockwell vision of America, the sort of sunnier, more optimistic vision of what America is and what it represents, has usually counterbalanced those sort of rageful, paranoid, fringe elements of the political process.

And what worries me about the current moment is that the middle ground, the people who in ordinary times in the past were fairly optimistic about the country they lived in - that middle ground is becoming increasingly fearful.

RAZ: Sasha, there was obviously left-wing anger during the Bush years, certainly against the Iraq War. Isn't the rage you describe now simply part of the cycle of politics, you know, that if a conservative president was elected, this type of anger would simply dissipate?

Mr. ABRAMSKY: No, I think to a degree, that's true, that we live in a political moment that defines itself by nastiness to a large extent. The politics in this country has become something more than a parlor game. It's become something that people get very impassioned about and very infuriated about.

And what I write about in my essay is that there's an amplification chamber, an echo chamber that's being created by certain technological changes around the media in particular that allow for anger to become all-pervasive.

So you're absolutely right. When George Bush was in charge, you had people like Al Franken or Michael Moore, who on a daily basis were drumbeating anger about the state of the country, and they got their anger amplified by the blogosphere.

And when Obama comes in, you see that anger in a sense inverted, and the right gets very, very angry, and you have the talk radio heads up in arms. You have the television rant speakers like Glenn Beck up in arms.

I think that what's happening is that each cycle, people are getting angrier, and so you're seeing an overlap now of economic anger and this sense that our best days are behind us, which I guess you could call cultural rage.

We could enter a period where whoever's in charge can't solve our problems, and no matter what kind of policies are put forward, millions of people still feel that their basic economic needs aren't getting met. And it's in that sense of failure, it's in that sense of expectations shattered that the risk of a very uncivil, brutal politics exists.

RAZ: That's Sasha Abramsky. He's the author of "Inside Obama's Brain." His article, "Look Ahead in Anger," can be found in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sasha Abramsky, thanks so much.

Mr. ABRAMSKY: Thank you very much.

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