A Divided U.S. and the Dangers of Misdirected Anger

Many people in the United States, as in many other places, are getting angrier. This would be a good thing if they all understood whom they should be angry at and the superiority of nonviolent activism to stupid, futile violence.

They should be angry at billionaires hoarding wealth, corporations paying zero taxes, and a federal government that is — for the most part — continuing to destroy the earth, invest in war, impoverish the poor, and enrich the gluttonous. They should be mad as hell that there’s been no partial restoration of value to the minimum wage, no student debt cancellation, no end to the endless wars or even slight scaling back of military spending, no green new deal, no Medicare for all, not even any semi-pseudo-healthcare reform, no end to corporate trade agreements, no breaking up of monopolies, no taxation of mega wealth or inheritance or financial transactions or corporate profits or capital gains or obscene income, or any lifting of the cap on payroll taxes to include all income of all types.

They should fall neither for the trickle-down, billionaires-are-good-for-you nonsense, nor the filibuster excuse from people who have neither tried to eliminate the filibuster nor seriously tried to pass most needed legislation through reconciliation, nor seriously tried to pass regulatory changes by majority vote in the first 60 legislative days (which, by my count, end March 24th).

Their anger should be targeted and informed, directed at a system and at the actions of those maintaining it. It should not be hateful or personal or bigoted. It should not impair thinking or nuance. It should not be directed into counterproductive actions such as violence or cruelty, but organized into effective mass action for positive change.

Unfortunately, that’s a wild dream at this point, and even pursuing it has to wait, because we have a bigger problem, namely the misdirection of anger toward the wrong things. It’s not a freak accident, or a shift from the past, that the U.S. President and Congress, while failing to deliver on most of what people desperately need, are encouraging hatred of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. The predictable “failures” to make peace with these nations, despite the ease with which success could be had if desired, is not only a matter of selling weaponry, not only a matter of bureaucratic inertia, not only a question of campaign “contributions,” not only a matter of the jobs used to build one weapon in 96 Congressional districts, not simply a question of the military and the permanent agencies driving the agenda, not merely a problem of corrupt media and of all the stink tanks funded by weapons and dictatorships. It’s also a matter of having enemies abroad so as not to have them in powerful places in the United States.

Chicken media outlets running about with their heads cut off, wondering why in the world there’s hatred for Asians, or before them Muslims — unable to see vicious imperialist foreign policy as anything other than noble philanthropy — should be very glad that most Americans do not think they can spot a Russian, or have decided that Russians don’t qualify as targets of their racism no matter what the government says. Otherwise, the anti-Russian violence would be even worse right now than the anti-Asian.

Part of the U.S. population hates China, and another part Russia, just as part hates vaccines and another part maskless super-spreaders. But a significant portion of the U.S. public agrees on hating some foreign government and/or population (the line gets blurry between governments and populations). Whichever team you’re on, the Ds or the Rs, you can only refrain from directing your anger toward foreigners by ignoring the demands of the elected officials on your team.

If you do that, your anger can flow into road-rage and annoying neighbors and rival sports teams, but much of it, for some groups, is directed into various flavors of bigotry: racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc., etc., etc. And for others, a great deal of anger, even hatred, and sometimes even violence is directed at the poor fools whose anger is directed into bigotry.

And, no, actually, I don’t love bigotry, though thank you for asking. I just think that change is needed at the top, and that inequality and hardship are fertile soil for bigotry and fascism. In fact, there’s a pretty widespread, longstanding, and certain consensus on that point; it’s not something I thought up.

But beyond those means of misdirecting anger, there’s another huge one at work in U.S. culture, namely the misdirection of anger between self-identified Democrats and Republicans, one for the other and vice versa. When a government tells you to hate China over and over again, and then your television tells you that anti-Asian violence is the creation of the RedState rednecks who think the earth is flat and dinosaurs a scam, you have options that include hating China, hating people of Asian ancestry, and hating Republicans. What a wonderful free country to give you so many choices! But none of them include questioning U.S. foreign policy or U.S. gun policy or a U.S. culture saturated in the glorification of violence. None of them raise the question of why only one wealthy nation on earth (no it is not “the wealthiest,” not per capita, so let’s stop saying that) leaves such a high percentage of people without decent lives, without decent income, without healthcare, without free education, without good career prospects or retirement security.

Exacerbating this problem is cultural fluff as displacement for serious policy, and electoral campaigns almost devoid of serious policy. Why hate the greedy bastard who just laid you off when you can hate the morons who think some Dr. Seuss books are out of date or the morons who do not think that? Why hate the environmentally destructive system that encourages disease pandemics, or the livestock industry that devastates the land and water and climate of the planet, or the bioweapons labs that very likely started the current pandemic and could easily start a different one if they didn’t start this one, when you can hate the Chinese or Donald Trump or the Chinese and Donald Trump or the liberal hucksters who supposedly invented the whole fiction of a disease pandemic?

If you’ve now decided that I love Donald Trump, I may be failing to make myself clear. Few have done more to misdirect people’s anger than Donald Trump. That does not prevent others misdirecting people’s anger at him when he’s no longer in power. He should be prosecuted, convicted, and punished for numerous crimes, but so should many others too big to fail, and the priority should be moving those people in power today away from the range of actions they now consider possible.

For years, I didn’t want to hear about the partisan divide, for a couple of reasons. One was that I didn’t identify with either big party. Another was that the supposed divide was a horrible myth when applied to elected officials in Washington, D.C. The leaders of both parties, and those who answer to those leaders, work for the weapons dealers, health insurance companies, banks, fossil fuel companies, giant restaurant chains, etc. When I see a post on social media suggesting that Biden cite the Bible while canceling all debt, just to see what the Republicans say, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the idea that Joe I-would-die-for-the-banks Biden is about to cancel all debt.

These blinders of mine shouldn’t prevent me from seeing that millions of people, no matter how deluded they are about Joe Biden, who themselves identify as “Democrats,” want to reduce or cancel debt, and oppose millions of other completely real people who identify as “Republicans” and join elected Republicans and elected Democrats in wanting to keep debt and wars and environmental destruction and poverty in place.

Of course those participating on one side of the divide or the other should likewise not be blinded from recognizing that the U.S. government is actually an oligarchy, and that majority opinion — whether or not it lines up with either side of the divide or crosses it — has almost no influence on the U.S. government.

That the divide is very real in the general U.S. public, no matter how fictional in elected officials, is borne out by polling. Here are some polling results:

“Government should do more to help the needy.”
Ds 71% Rs 24%

“Racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.”
Ds 64% Rs 14%

“Immigrants strengthen the country with their hardwork and talents.”
Ds 84% Rs 42%

“Good diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace.”
Ds 83% Rs 33%

Well that’s just polite, good-natured, and respectful differences of opinion, you might think. But it isn’t. Here’s another poll.

According to USA Today, not only is there a gap in opinions, and not only is there a lack of respect, but there is also a great deal of suffering about those facts:

“Nearly a third of those surveyed said the nation’s divisive public debate was having a personal impact on their lives. . . . About half of those respondents said they had been prompted to pay more attention to political news and commentary; nearly as many said they had decided to avoid it. Forty percent of them said they experienced depression, anxiety or sadness. More than a third had serious fights with friends or family members.”

This is not created by differences of opinion but by large-group identities set at odds with each other. People in the United States do not so much choose partisan political identities to match their policy preferences, as choose their policy preferences to match their political identities. The primary reason most people were peace activists in 2003, like the primary reason that most of the same people were not in 2008, was that they were Democrats. I recently saw a post by Ted Rall pointing out that there are so many people who say they support socialism that if they all got together they could out-vote the Democrats or the Republicans. That’s perfectly true and perfectly desirable and hugely admirable, but it misses the wee little problem that many if not most of those same people identify first-and-foremost as Democrats-Right-Or-Wrong. That’s their team, their culture-war army, even their segregated community of residence.

The solution to the bitter divide is not, I think, a muddled, evidence-free proposal to advance political positions halfway between the two camps — even if that would largely mean moving virtually the whole U.S. Congress to the left in many areas. The two camps are identities; they’re cultural creations, they’re not polling results. Places that voted for Trump voted to raise the minimum wage. Significant numbers of people want the government to keep its meddling paws off their Social Security, while others want to tax billionaires even if they want it a little less than they want to keep every Dr. Seuss book in publication. And almost everybody lacks a well-informed background on what the federal budget looks like and what the federal government does.

One thing we need is to reduce the misdirection of anger at the other camp. I don’t mean to stop getting mad at elected Republicans. I mean to start getting mad at all elected officials who are failing to represent the public, while ceasing to get mad at half the public. A good book on this topic, not that it agrees with me on everything, is Nathan Bomey’s Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age. It’s got lots of great examples of people bringing divided people together, including examples from churches here in Charlottesville, and the great work of Sami Rasouli. We need people brought together through respect and friendship, not just tolerance, across the U.S. “political” (really, more cultural) divide, as well as across the divide between people in the United States and people in nations demonized by the weapons industry.

One way to build unity across national borders is to share in the work to reform bad governments. Everybody has one of those! And one way to build unity across the D/R divide in the U.S. is to jointly recognize the failures of all elected officials in the U.S. government, those on the other team and those on your team (a process that could move you away from having a team).

Another thing we need, beyond or parallel with bridge builders, is movement builders advancing the cause of beneficial and universal policies. One way to reduce misdirected anger is to reduce the root causes of any anger. Policy successes, even if many of them are thought of as leftist, if they are universal and fair, will reduce resentment, which will reduce the misdirection of that resentment toward anyone, including leftists and everybody else.

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