Letting Emotion Reign
Why Anger in Politics is Not a Virtue
Anger has become the primary tool by which political leaders seek to demonstrate their principles and virtue. The deep partisan divide in Congress is fueled by anger towards the other party. And if you aren’t angry? You must not be principled. If you aren’t angry, people will say that you just don’t care enough. Either that, or they will deem you ignorant.
Leading with anger has become the new normal. The anger of politicians today takes negative campaign ads a step further. For it is not enough to use your anger to incite change. Anger permeates the entire process, from the recognition that something is wrong, to the outrage that the other side could possibly be so bigoted, or the horror when you’re forced to compromise. Anger has become the universal justification for bad behavior. Breaking Congressional rules? Leaking classified information? It must be okay, because he was angry, and anger signifies principles.
The problems with this logic are astonishing and the message is clear. Why should people stop leading with anger when it works? When it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card? When it riles up the voting base and is an easy way to show passion about a policy or idea?
Perhaps because to use anger to appear principled is not, in itself, principled.
Anger has become a weapon utilized by both the right and left in an attempt to claim the moral high ground. In being seen as an indicator of virtue, anger itself is now considered to be virtuous in the political sphere. This sets a dangerous tone for the state of our politics. For while there have been calls recently for bridging the divide and increasing civility in politics, these calls are often rooted in arguments shrouded in anger at the political system or at the other side for acting or thinking a certain way. An olive branch extended in anger is really no olive branch at all.
When anger is used as a bridge, it, more often than not, only causes further division. It is a massive obstacle to understanding and therefore to humility. A divide cannot truly be bridged without such considerations and without the willingness to build a bridge that doesn’t just serve to transport the other side to your own caucus.
That is not to suggest that there aren’t many good reasons to be angry—there are. And yes, being principled and virtuous might result in anger when people or policies act in an immoral or unjust manner.
The problem is not the presence of anger. Anger is not on its face a bad thing. The problem is when anger consumes everything else. The problem is when you have to be angry in order to show you care. For when anger leads it hinders understanding and prevents humility.
So yes, anger has its place. But doesn’t gratitude have a place too? A look towards the politics of today would seem to indicate that it does not. But therein lies the problem.
When gratitude is equated to complete acceptance, it is shunned in favor of anger. To be grateful to the Founders is now equated as being grateful for slavery. How can gratitude have a place in society when it is redefined as such and when there is no nuance between gratitude and complete and unyielding endorsement?
Anger does not indicate principle. When anger leads, there is no place for gratitude. Yet, for anger to have its proper place, gratitude must temper it.
Holly Bahadursingh is a senior studying political science, among many other things. She can be reached at Holly.Bahadursingh.firstname.lastname@example.org.