I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Embrace the anger - It's not 1972 anymore

There isn't much meat left on the bone known as the Richard Cohen column from the other day, what with all the ravenous savages having feasted on it for a couple of days, including those with a particularly voracious appetite who even greedily went back for second helpings. But there is an "idea" floating around in Cohen's column that is all-too-common, including among many Democrats, and is therefore worth examining:

The anger festering on the Democratic left will be taken out on the Democratic middle. (Watch out, Hillary!) I have seen this anger before -- back in the Vietnam War era. That's when the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party helped elect Richard Nixon. In this way, they managed to prolong the very war they so hated.

The "Angry Left" cartoon has forever been a favorite tactic of those models of Civility and Rhetorical Restraint on the Right -- and as demonstrated by the head-patting praise which the "good boy" Cohen received from Bush supporters, it still is. And many Democrats have internalized it, too. Anger is a bad, bad thing and must be avoided at all costs. McGovern's 1972 defeat proves that.

This argument is false -- dangerously so -- for so many reasons. Most successful political movements need passion. Anger, when constructively directed, is a potent and inspiring passion. It is noble to be angry about dangerous situations and corrupt leaders, and there are few passions which can compete with anger for inspiring oneself and others to meaningful action.

Conversely, those who are entirely devoid of anger are often lifeless, limp, uninspiring figures who seem to be drained of soul and purpose. An anger-less political movement is embodied by a plodding, bespecled, muttering Jay Rockefeller. Or John Kerry's non-response to the Swift Boat attacks. Or the Democrats' often ponderous, half-hearted, overly-rational mutterings on all too many issues or in response to all too many corruption and lawbreaking scandals. Or craven, eager-to-please "liberals" who are more interested in convincing Fox News and other Bush followers how balanced and reasonable they are than they are than in fighting for any actual political ideals -- like Joe Klein, or Richard Cohen, for example.

Democrats need to get away -- as far away and as quickly as possible -- from that bland, mushy, sonorous, overly calculating and painfully restrained, passion-free dead zone. And in that regard, a much bigger problem for Democrats has been a lack of anger -- and most other human passions -- not an excess of it.

Beyond those generic observations about anger, this is simply not 1972 anymore. Richard Nixon didn't win the 1972 election because Democrats were angry. He won because he was a highly popular president whose policies Americans agreed with and liked. His approval ratings hovered steadily at 60% from the time he was elected until well into the Watergate scandal. Nixon was elected because he was popular (see UPDATE below).

The contrast with our current situation could not be more stark. Bush is as unpopular now as Nixon was popular then. Not just "the Left," but a majority of Americans, is disillusioned and angry with Bush. After all -- although Beltway pundits find this notion to be oh-so-distasteful and overblown -- a majority of Americans believe that Bush "intentionally misled" the nation into invading Iraq. Don't you think they're angry about that? How many people do you know who aren't angry when they think that someone has "intentionally misled" them into anything -- let alone that a President did so in order to induce their support for a disastrous war on false pretenses?

Every time there is another story about American soldiers dying in Iraq or Iraqi Government death squads or brewing civil war, Americans are reminded that we are stuck over there with no end in sight -- and that we went there because we were told we had to for non-existent WMD's and (implicitly) because Saddam planned 9/11. And it turns out that none of that was true. Of course people are angry about that, and there is no equivalent blow to a president's credibility -- not in 1972, maybe not ever.

And every poll makes clear that Americans dislike and distrust this president and his party, and want more scrutiny of them, not less. As pointed out yesterday in response to the discussion here about whether Democrats should run away from their intent to investigate the administration, an overwhelming majority of Americans -- 67% -- believe that Congress has given too little scrutiny to the administration's conduct. People know that there are things that are profoundly amiss in our country, that this misconduct has been concealed, and they are obviously deeply disturbed by it. What else would explain a President's crashing to humiliating and soon-to-be-historic-levels of unpopularity -- even in a supposed "time of war"?

The right wing understands the value of political anger all too well. Their biggest stars and most influential pundits traffic in the angriest and most bitter rhetoric imaginable. We know the routine by heart now -- liberals are godless traitors and mentally ill, subversive, fascist losers who should be spoken to only with baseball bats, sedition convictions, and nooses. While the Right insists that liberals are terribly rude for not being more civil -- and also, for their own good, nurtuingly tells liberals that they should not be so angry if they want to win elections -- the Right long ago dispensed with any limitations on the ugliness and anger of the rhetoric they invoke, routinely. Anyone with any doubts about that can just click on a few of this paragraph's links, if you can stomach it.

The crux of the successful Republican political movement in the 1990s was based on few things other than anger. And it still is. The Republican Party was driven by the "angry white male" throughout that decade, who insisted that Hilary had Vince Foster murdered and the Clintons were taking over the world with UN black helicopters. The anti-Clinton movement was symbolized by that ultimate manifestation of political anger -- militias:

[Covert Action Quarterly investigation Daniel] Junus wrote that: "The militias represent misguided right-wing populism with real and imagined grievances stoked by a politics of resentment and scapegoating." Typically, members are angry men with military training who believe that their way of life is being threatened; that they have been backed against a wall.

Republicans didn't send out their whiny Richard Cohens to condemn this anger and tell everyone to just stop it. They did the opposite -- they recognized that anger drives people to political activism and to the polls, and they rode that deep-seated anger to take over the House, solidify their gains over state legislatures, and defeat Clinton's Vice President in 2000 with a Southern candidate who exploited those cultural resentments.

Karl Rove is the master of culling and using political rage. I've been reading some of the interviews from the book Patriotic Acts, by Bill Katovsky, which compiles a series of oral histories on dissent. One of the people interviewed in the book is Max Cleland, and here is what he says about why he lost his 2002 Senate race:

By 1968, Nixon had embarked on the Southern strategy: "Go after the redneck boys on race. It'll bring 'em in every time." You know, it has become more subtle over the years. Certainly, it's what Ralph Reed had used against me in my 2002 re-election campaign.

The Confederate emblem on the state flag was the incendiary bomb in Georgia politics. And it hit the third rail. Which killed us all. It gave the hatchet to the right wing. They raised the issue that Democrats were trying to take away Georgia's culture. The cultural war included the Confederate flag. That was their symbol. . . .

Karl Rove got a lot of money to come down and push nothing but voter registration and turnout for white males. That's what was coming off the charts in anger against Democrats. . . .

They buried us with their strategy. It turned out an extra 140,000 angry white males who normally don't vote. And it turned the mid-term election. Governor Roy Barnes and I lost by apporximately the same margin.

Republicans rode the anger so hard that they even ended up impeaching a President with very high approval ratings -- something which conventional wisdom (but few facts) maintain hurt the Republicans, but Cleland knows otherwise:

I voted not guilty. While Clinton lied and so forth, it certainly was not an impeachable offense. But it brought down the Democratic progress, and it activated the radical right. It gave them something to beat the Democrats over the head within the elections of 2000. Which is one reason Bush won.

Anger has been the great driving force for Republicans. It is the language they speak. And I'd go so far as to say that no political movement could really succeed without the passion of anger. People need a reason to devote their time, money and energy to a political cause. That incentive will usually come in the form of believing that there is something terribly unjust, corrupt and/or dangerous about the current political situation, and in people who are alive and impassioned, that will usually result in some anger. Those who have no passion or beliefs and are more interested in showing how rational and balanced they are will turn up their effete noses at displays of anger, but it is a potent and necessary force to enroll people in political change.

There are some basic facts which Democrats like Cohen and The New Republic mysteriously seem not to be able to ingest. Let's review a few of those. Republicans don't tell Democrats to repudiate their "angry base" because they want to help Democrats figure out how to win elections. Republicans don't actually want Democrats to figure out how to win elections.

Republicans tell Democrats to repudiate their "angry base" so that eager-to-be-liked-and-desperate-to-be-considered-reasonable Democrats like Joe Klein, Marshall Whitman, Joe Lieberman and Richard Cohen will attack other Democrats and depict them as radical, deranged freaks. Because when a bulk of Democrats are so eager to curry head-pats from the Right that they spend more time attacking the symbols of their own party than they do attacking the Right, that is a good thing for Republicans. It breeds divisiveness among Democrats, confuses their message, and destroys the symbols of their own party. "Hey, look - even Richard Cohen and Joe Klein and Joe Lieberman and The New Republic say that those Democrats are deranged and angry and radical and anti-American. And all the while, they say how George Bush and Newt Gingrich are really great guys for whom they have the highest respect."

That is why the Right encourages this idea among Democrats that anger is fatal and to be avoided - even as they perfect the art of using it themselves. They know from lots of experience that a political party that coalesces around its impassioned anger can be very successful. The sooner Democrats figure that out, the better off they will be.

UPDATE: A commenter notes that Cohen was likely talking about the 1968 election, not the 1972 election, "when the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party helped elect Richard Nixon." That's probably true. But the anti-war protestors of 1968 weren't trying to defeat Richard Nixon. They were trying to force the Government to withdraw troops from the Vietnam. And the images which I presume Cohen is invoking -- violent rallies and convention protets -- is a far, far cry from anything happening today (notwithstanding Cohen's self-indulgent and disgustingly overblown reference to "digital lynch mobs").

Were those images of street violence and unbridled rage a cause in Humphrey's defeat? Possibly, and it seems that many who lived through that time were so trauamtized by it that they vowed never to offend anyone from the other party ever again -- a vow to which they have steadfastly adhered for these almost four decades. But from that hardly follows that anger should be forever avoided as a political tool. As Republicans have demonstrated for quite some time, the party which runs away from anger is the party which stands for nothing, inspires nobody, and loses.

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