We have this election season a few candidates, on both sides of the ideological aisle, who are said to be “tapping into American anger.” What this means is that these candidates, demonstrably more so than their rivals, address explicitly the frustration, resentment, and fear that many in the country are feeling at the moment.
“Tapping into American anger” doesn’t mean so much that a candidate speaks hope and optimism to such fear, but more that he or she validates that emotion by acknowledging it as real, legitimate, and important. A candidate who talks like this is identifying with the anger, both at a personal level (“As an American like you, I’m angry as well) and a political one (“You deserve a candidate who knows how you feel”).
All of this is reported by pundits and politicos more as a matter of fact than a question of virtue. But is this correct? Is there a moral dimension to our national “anger” that should inform how we view candidates who try to “tap into” our cultural consternation?
Righteous anger is neither natural nor easy. In fact, in the context of our daily lives, righteous anger is fairly rare. The things that make us the most angry are typically not the forces of evil and death but the inconveniences, frustrations, annoyances, and minutia that are common to everyday life. It is the character of anger to seek unrighteous reasons to flare up. That is why, for most of us, keeping our tongue and heart under control is easier when thinking about oppression of the poor than it is when our spouse doesn’t appreciate us, or a coworker fails to give us credit.
The reality then is that our angry emotions are not always—or even usually—to be trusted. And if this is true in marriage, parenting, and friendship, it is also true in politics.
We should beware of political movements that appeal directly to anger. While it’s true that many just political causes involve a measure of anger at injustice or oppression, it’s equally true that these just causes are much more than mere angry politics. Righteous political anger must come from a conscience that is formed by moral and spiritual virtue. If political anger is to be righteous, it must be able to articulate clear, reasonable, realistic, and responsible principles.
The Scriptures do not prohibit all anger, but the New Testament does admonish us that human anger does not tend toward the righteousness that God requires. That’s why any politic that addresses injustice must do more than arouse passion. The pro-life movement is a good example of a contemporary justice movement that (by and large) does not flinch from emotive language of life and death, but nonetheless embodies a mature, full-blooded worldview of compassion and human dignity. There is anger at the state-sponsored destruction of human life, yes, but there is also the proper spiritual and intellectual architecture to anchor pro-life in a way that will effect real change with moral authority, not just incite emotion.
On the flip side, we see today many popular political movements which seem passionate but disconnected from principle. There is much talk of “taking America back” or “ending inequality” but often these phrases are used arbitrarily, with little to no articulation of a serious intellectual framework or tradition from which these ideas gain meaning. Indeed, much of our contemporary political discourse conspicuously lacks appreciation of the moral thought of previous generations. Thus, many Americans feel that the political problems facing them are utterly unique to the current generation, and therefore utterly the responsibility of their contemporary enemies.
Engaging the whole range of human emotion is critical when communicating transcendent truth. But in our current election cycle, anger seems to be disproportionately featured. This can generate heated debates, opportunistic platforms and catchy headlines, but unfortunately it cannot guide political conversation where it needs to go.
When we hear that a candidate is “tapping into anger,” our first instinct should not be to appreciate this but to critique it, to ask where the anger is, if it’s legitimate, and what kind of serious solutions the candidate is putting forward. If a candidate’s ideas and speech cannot stand up to even this kind of basic scrutiny, then we should doubt very seriously whether this candidate is qualified to lead our politics. Anger can wake us out of apathy, but it cannot make our path straight.