In case you haven’t heard, this just in—Americans are angry. In fact, many are mad as hell, and they apparently aren’t going to take “it” anymore. Whatever “it” is, it is certainly not good news for current elected officials, no matter what the party affiliation (though, admittedly, it is slightly worse news for Democrats).
There is restlessness across the land, the kind that fuels turbulence in the body politic. Presidential Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, used the term “anger” several times this past week in his remarks about the recent loss of the once-thought-mega-safe Senate seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy.
But is being angry enough to create constructive solutions to the problems that so easily beset the nation?
Taking a cue from something Winston Churchill once said in another context: Anger may be “a good starter, but it is a bad sticker.” In other words, there is a down side to un-tempered temper.
Now, before you dismiss this essay as short on conviction and insufficiently caustic for any authentic political conservative, hear me out. I share the current capacity and taste for outrage—politically and culturally. Beginning with the final years of the Bush administration, and accelerating at breakneck speed last year with the dawn of the age of Obama, we have borne witness to a steady erosion of conservative values, fiscal as well as social.
And I very much believe that recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and now Massachusetts, are a clear and notable reaction to the resurgence of big government-ism. The election of 2008, though a watershed moment in the sense of breaking an important barrier, is turning out not to be a mandate to govern from the far left, after all.
I mean, seriously—could there be any stronger hint that Americans don’t actually want the whole cap-and-trade, sweeping healthcare reform en route to socialized medicine, and a kinder-gentler you-have-the-right-to-remain-silent approach to those who are inclined to blow all of us up in the name of Islamism, than to have the forever-blue Ted Kennedy seat in the Senate turn several shades of Republican red?
Think of the imagery. It was, in a real sense, Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Barack Obama just about two years ago that became the catalyst for the momentum leading to the Illinois Senator’s ultimately victory over front-runner Hillary Clinton for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. And Mr. Kennedy’s funeral last year became a obvious and awkwardly inappropriate rally for healthcare reform, turning the last lion into a Gipper of sorts.
So losing Teddy’s seat is a big deal on steroids.
This is where the Churchill-ism I referred to earlier—about anger being a good “starter” but not a good “sticker” comes in. The kind of anger we are hearing about and actually seeing has been sufficient to create electoral seismicity, but there is a case to be made that ire itself is not enough to effectuate lasting change.
In other words, anger may be a good place to start, but it is a horrible place to stay.
We should all should bear in mind that anger has throughout history been categorized as a serious, even deadly evil. Anger is impulsive and impatient. It can provide the spark to get a transformative engine started, but what it unleashes can sometimes turn ugly—especially if performance doesn’t match promise. Mr. Obama and his supporters are learning this lesson right now.
And if conservatives who have leveraged current political dissatisfaction into electoral triumph don’t deliver constructive and effective policies, they’ll feel the backlash sooner as opposed to later. There is no time for end-zone antics—the game is far from over.
While I find myself very glad that some who share my vision and values have recently been successful, I also am concerned that the angry mood in America—if not relieved somehow (ideally by reasonable policies involving a much more limited approach to government)—may lead to a period of political instability.
Anger can be a good thing—in small doses. Even the scripture says, “Be angry and sin not.” But we are also reminded not to let the sun go down on our wrath. Why? Because of all the great “sins,” anger is the easiest to rationalize. It is subtle and comforting. We feel right in being mad, or as we might prefer to call it, “righteously indignant.” But at some point anger must be put aside, jettisoned into the sea like an exhausted booster rocket, and wisdom and reasonableness must provide thrust thereafter. Prolonged and sustained anger is always toxic and destructive. Indignation, to be ultimately vindicated, can and must be transformed into positive and constructive action.
Of course, my views on this are rooted in scripture. But I learned long ago that unresolved and unrestrained anger becomes a breeding ground for bigger problems. Parents are admonished not to “provoke” children to wrath. Why? Because angry kids are more prone to get into other kinds of trouble. In fact, anger is a co-factor in most anti-social behavior.
And in a sense, it’s the same with politics. People voted out of anger in 2008. People voted out of anger in 2009. Now it has happened in 2010, and likely will again later this year. But it is not sufficient to be mad enough to throw the old people out. The new people must have a plan. Conservatives have an opportunity right now, a moment in time, not just to take seats and jobs away from those more liberal, but also to offer a compelling vision for the future.
Ronald Reagan was successful because he was a conservative who, while having the capacity for anger, knew that you caught more flies with honey than with vinegar. He wasn’t mean or ugly, brooding or negative—with him it was “morning in America,” not two minutes before midnight.
Richard Nixon’s highly effective campaign in 1966, during those off-year elections, is one that should be examined by Republican strategists and tacticians right now. He instinctively understood the anger in the nation at the time, but recognized that merely tapping into anger was not nearly enough to get anything worthwhile done. He emerged as someone seasoned and sage, a youngish elder statesman. And it paid off politically.
No one understood the practicalities of politics like Mr. Nixon.
I am not advocating a revival of phrases like “kinder-gentler” or even “compassionate conservatism,” but any resurgence of tough-minded authentic—even enlightened—conservatism in this country needs to have a congenial tone to match its populist bent.