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Anger and Citizenship

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The Iowa caucuses are in the rear-view mirror, the New Hampshire primary looms on the horizon, and by most media accounts, the leitmotif of Campaign 2016 is “anger.” As in: a lot-of-Americans-are-angry-and-that-explains-the attraction-of-certain-candidates, whether that be the anti-political-correctness anger of Donald Trump voters, the anti-government anger of Ted Cruz voters, or the Obama-hasn’t-been-radical-enough anger of Bernie Sanders voters. For those of us with long cinematic memories, it’s rather reminiscent of the Howard Beale character inNetwork, urging people to stick their heads out the window and holler, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

I get it. My own reactions to the papers I read daily, the magazines I read weekly, and the news programs I watch occasionally are not often conducive to a happy blood pressure reading. Yet whatever my sympathies may be with this, that, or the other wrath du jour, I hope that, as the 2016 campaign unfolds, the electorate will begin to understand that anger is not a particularly healthy metric of public life.

The first Marquis of Halifax, George Savile, a 17th-century English statesman and a notable phrase-maker, ranks second only to the immortal Dr. Johnson in the number of entries in The Viking Book of Aphorisms. There, I find this small gem: “Anger is never without an argument, but seldom with a good one.” Does that ring a bell or two, my fellow Americans? It should, given the character of the presidential “debate” thus far. And that warning bell suggests that we’ve got a problem. For serious debate, conducted with civility, is the lifeblood of democracy.

Civility does not preclude passion. Given the gravity of the issues before us in 2016—which involve the future of freedom around the world and the dignity of the human person here at home—passion is entirely welcome. But passion is not anger. Anger is a glandular thing. An angry politics is a politics of the gut. A passionate politics, informed and disciplined by reason, can be a politics of the intelligence, a politics of great ideas: a politics, if you will, of sound moral judgment. And sound moral judgment is rarely, if ever, the child of anger.

Read more at FirstThings.com…

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