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The Politics of Anger

Anger has always played a role in politics.

Key points

  • Anger as a political tool is not a new phenomenon; we are a nation that was born out of a state of irritation that led to open rebellion.
  • When anger arises from the unchecked burden of psychological wounds, the revenge factor can escalate to catastrophic proportions.
  • The key to turning the fury factor in politics down is a mindful approach that addresses what is at the heart of the matter.

"Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” —Aristotle

As a psychotherapist working in the mental health field for over 30 years, I have often been called upon to provide anger management to clients. These referrals are seldom self-diagnosed and usually result when a person has "lost it" around a select person, and the consequences outweigh the normal resistance to seeking counseling.

In my current role as a clinical manager of an employee assistance program (EAP), I'm often contacted about angry displays in the workplace. Bullying, micro-aggressions, and toxic work environments are the current symptomology of when anger goes to work. Frequently, I get calls from Human Resource representatives about an employee who went on an expletive-laden rant during a team meeting and whose job now hinges on their learning how to rant without the expletives.

On a larger scale, I experienced the direct effects of anger being politically motivated when I spent five days in our nation's Capitol providing psychological first aid (PFA) after the January 6 insurrection. Broken windows and smashed doors were the more visible signs of what a mob juiced up on anger is capable of—the more subtle signs I saw in the faces of the officers I met and heard as they described their shock at what unfolded that day.

Anger as a political tool is not a new phenomenon

We are a nation that was born out of a state of irritation that led to open rebellion. What is different is the tenor and tone of our political climate—we have become an indig-nation where discourse is replaced by discord, and debating one's rivals turns into debasing them, all backed by self-serving tones and punctuated by reddened faces, bulging veins, and wild gesticulations of irritation. If you doubt this, simply turn the sound off on your television and surf through the various news channels, and you will see more contorted bodies than in a yoga studio.

I must confess that years of witnessing the destructive power of unchecked anger have left me with the sense that the current mood in our country needs a giant intervention before we collectively break something beyond repair—our democracy. My professional opinion is that we have moved past the need for a social chill pill (the Prozac Nation may be less depressed, but it's no less angry) and are now in need of major tranquilizers so we can step back, count to ten, take a deep breath and use the rational part of our brains. Parents will recognize this process as the go-to method for interrupting their children's meltdowns (minus the tranquilizers).

When anger arises from the unchecked burden of psychological wounds, the revenge factor can escalate to catastrophic proportions. While it remains a truism that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," it is also true that today's pen, in the form of social media, encourages the use of weapons much deadlier than sticks and stones.

Since the roots of anger are often deeply buried, twisted, and entangled with a multitude of other emotions, those who attempt to soothe the savage beasts in others often find themselves responding in kind. This race to the bottom of our better selves—tapping into the undercurrent of frustration and feelings of powerlessness—turns finger-pointing into fist-pumping in which the cause is not only lost but also is no longer relevant. As the moral imperative dims, the voice of reason is lost amidst a cacophony of self-righteous hypocrisy.

The danger is that a self-propelled angry mob not only seeks out monsters but will also turn on whatever feels right at the moment. This is the warning that Aldous Huxley gave when he wrote about "crowd delirium" and "herd intoxication." His outline of these phenomena hit at the core of our current state of governmental affairs: "Drugged by the mysterious poison which every excited crowd secretes, they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility. While they are in this state, they will believe any nonsense and obey any command, however senseless or criminal."

Huxley went on to explain that surrendering our better selves to this "herd poison" leads to a "downward self-transcendence." Under the influence of this toxic potion and fueled by anger, the thinking brain goes offline, and "whatever I say three times is true—and whatever I say three hundred times is divine revelation." This is where anger turns from expressing one's frustrations into chants for collective violence in the name of righteousness.

Addressing political anger

The key to turning the fury factor in politics down a few notches is a mindful approach that addresses what is at the heart of the matter. To start, we must admit that anger has been woven into the body politic since its inception. From the civil war to civil rights, anger has been the soundtrack to scenes both exhilarating and alarming.

As a political tool, it has been used to both motivate and manipulate the masses—turning their fears into frenzies and the perception of powerlessness to one of all-powerful. This sense of powerlessness is a prime generator that throws many otherwise peace-loving individuals into the danger zone of seeing red. That the history of governance tilts toward power hoarding, as opposed to power sharing, is a clue to a possible, if not cure, reduction of our country's current high anger fever.

It would seem to make sense that an angry electorate will send angry representatives to seats at the political table where the airing of grievances becomes a Seinfeld-esque Festivus only without the laugh track. One can only wonder if the healing of one's personal anger wound would, in turn, translate into being drawn to candidates whose passion for service comes from a healthier place. Could it be that the wisdom of the ages, which has repeatedly advised that external turmoil arises from inner conflict, has been there as the simple solution all along? Is it possible that once healed, the anger wound will reveal the loving-kindness hidden beneath?

I'm reminded of the closing remarks of the character in Dostoevsky's Dream of a Ridiculous Man, who, in trying to determine how to bring a vision of a Utopian society to reality, comments: "how simple it is: in one day, in one hour everything could be arranged at once! The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that's the chief thing, and that's everything; nothing else is wanted—you will find out at once how to arrange it all."

Or, perhaps, the changing of hearts and minds is a cognitive process, where the healing of the anger wound brings the frontal lobes back online, and the result is, as Yeats wrote, "that this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world... Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme."

During the healing process, it helps to keep in mind that it's unlikely that the politics of anger will bring about the end of civility for all time. Philosophers tell us that nothing lasts forever, and even angry mobs need to sleep at some point. It will, however, be a shame if it becomes the fine print added to our Declaration of Independence, where all men and women are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of pettiness.

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