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Anger as a powerful motivator

June 14, 2010

This post was written by Ellen Tveit of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship.

In his June 13 commentary written for the New York Times, J.M. Bernstein attempts to uncover the source of, in his words, “the seething anger that seems to be an indigenous aspect of the Tea Party.”

“It is not for the sake of acquiring political power that Tea Party activists demonstrate, rally and organize,” writes Bernstein. Rather, “the appeal is to ‘individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power,'” he continues, citing a recent essay in the New York Times by Mark Lilla.  Lilla calls Tea Party activists a “libertarian mob” that believes “they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone.”

Bernstein hypothesizes that “what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.” He goes on to liken the Tea Party to a jilted lover, “furious that the other — the anonymous blob called simply ‘government’ — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable.”

Whether you agree or disagree in whole or in part with Bernstein, he does raise interesting questions about the tension between the American cultural values of independence and self-sufficiency and the interdependence that is intrinsic to a democracy.

Many of the online comments following Bernstein’s piece expressed agreement with the anger of Tea Party members–over bank bailouts and flawed health care reform–though many questioned the targets of that anger.

One online commenter noted that American philosopher John Dewey anticipated an eruption of this kind of anger in 1927. In his book The Public and its Problems, Dewey described “the powerful forces at work that eclipse the public and prevent it from articulating its needs and explains how special interests, powerful corporate capital, numbing and distracting entertainment, general selfishness, and the vagaries of public communication make effective public deliberation difficult” (from Wikipedia).

If we agree that our system of government is “by the people, for the people,” then each of us must acknowledge our responsibility for not only identifying the current system’s flaws but also creating and sustaining a system that works. Anger can be a powerful motivator for change. The question is, do we have the public skills to channel that anger into making positive change?

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 1, 2010 8:36 am

    In a June 16 post on his blog titled “populism and ‘the government,'” Peter Levine concludes:

    “Having acknowledged that the government is ours already–we own it, legally and morally, and must take responsibility for it–we can turn to the ways it is not of, for, and by the people. In broad strokes, it may come from us, but money influences its decisions far too strongly. There are no realistic pathways for many Americans to enter politics and public life. In the government, power is distributed in ways that make it difficult for the public to hold leaders accountable. (For example, the present administration should be able to determine economic policy so that the public can vote up or down in November; instead, abuse of the filibuster creates deadlock.) The public discussion is structured so that we can’t deliberate about common interests and learn from one another, but instead fracture into interest groups whose aggregate demands are irrational. Finally, the government is not of us sufficiently because it does not tap people’s energies, ideas, and values sufficiently to solve public problems.

    “That diagnosis leads to a positive program that seems much more worthy to be called ‘populism’ than any simple diagnosis of the government as the enemy of the people.”

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