For the State of the Union: Let's Learn from the Anger

Last week's election of the photogenic Scott Brown in Massachusetts has been greeted with stupefaction. How could the unaccomplished Brown take over the seat of the Lion of the Senate? Was it because Martha Coakley was a fabulously inept campaigner? Was it because the White House didn't pay attention to the local dynamics until it was much too late? Was it health care or was it taxes, big government or the poisonous appearance of the words "Yankee Fan?" There is no shortage of theories or explanations, but there is consensus about one thing: the voters were angry, and Scott Brown channeled that anger.

In Sunday's New York Times, Sam Tannenhaus recalled some of the populist movements that drew on rage against entrenched institutions. From Huey Long during the Depression to passionate Goldwater devotees in the 1960s, there have always been plenty of citizens who felt that 'extremism is no vice' when they're ticked off. College campuses, where I spend most of my time, are usually tranquil islands of calm and learning, but from time to time, they too erupt in outbursts of rage that send professors and administrators running for cover. Angry students often boycott classes, and symbolically this is very important. Angry people may want to destroy something, and they may want to create something new. But typically they don't want to learn; they are, as they often put it, "through listening." They want their anger to reveal something fundamentally wrong with the status quo. When students are angry, in their best moments, they become teachers.

The literary critic Philip Fisher, in a marvelous book entitled The Vehement Passions, writes that "something is disclosed to us in states of vehemence." Anger, he notes, has given rise to calls for justice, for better laws or for a more equitable distribution of the things we care about. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote that "anger can be visionary, a kind of cleansing clarity." Of course, anger can also spill into violence, into the denial of meaning and the destruction of whatever values, people or institutions have provoked outrage. Which kind of anger are we witnessing now: the kind that reveals something important about our world, or the kind that just wants to tear things down? What is being disclosed to us in the anger we see expressed across the country over the last few months?

President Obama and his advisors seem bewildered by this vehement anger, not appreciating how this passion is related to the joy and exuberance of a year ago. "Yes We Can!" has become "No You Don't!" I realize that many of the people who are now expressing fury are not those who believed in hope for change. Be that as it may, the dominant tone of political discourse has shifted so dramatically because hopes had been so high. What is fueling much of the public display of anger are feelings of optimism dashed and hope betrayed.

Nothing feeds anger quite like a sense of betrayal. In order to feel betrayed you first have to feel trust. You can't be betrayed by somebody you never cared about. Many a former cynic cheered our new president last year because he inspired trust, even in a world of profound and dangerous problems. Maybe that's why Obama's "personal" numbers continue to show support - we want to maintain that trust. But the sense of disappointment because the problems are more difficult than it first appeared has shifted for many into a sense of betrayal. If we had imagined we were getting leadership that would overcome cynical secrecy, leadership that would promote economic compassion for families and not just for the financial system, leadership that would envision an end to our far-flung military engagements...if we imagined any of those things, there is bound to be a sense of betrayal today.

What does this anger teach us? Of course, it shows us the ability of powerful economic forces to exploit fear and insecurity in the service of continued (and profitable) injustice. But the anger also discloses something to learn from, something we can build on. I think it's the need for trust. This anger should disclose to President Obama and his team the need to rebuild a sense of trust within a broad spectrum of our citizens. If betrayal is anger's fuel, trust is its antidote. The ham-fisted rhetoric of "fat cats" won't be enough to convince Americans that the president "gets it;" that he and we are on the same side. But the serious and charismatic leader we elected has the capacity to turn the tide, and he must begin now, with the State of the Union Address. He has the gifts to show in word and deed that he cares about the economic struggles of working families. And showing this in word and deed day after day, week after week, will enable him to repair the powerful sense of trust with which he began his presidency.

Anger discloses the need for trust. By inspiring trust President Obama can be far more successful in tackling the daunting problems that remain. That's what we can learn from anger.