Anger and Citizenship

Published February 3, 2016

George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference

The Iowa caucuses are in the rear-view mirror, the New Hampshire primary looms on the horizon, and by most media accounts, the leitmotif of Campaign 2016 is “anger.” As in: a lot-of-Americans-are-angry-and-that-explains-the attraction-of-certain-candidates, whether that be the anti-political-correctness anger of Donald Trump voters, the anti-government anger of Ted Cruz voters, or the Obama-hasn’t-been-radical-enough anger of Bernie Sanders voters. For those of us with long cinematic memories, it’s rather reminiscent of the Howard Beale character in Network, urging people to stick their heads out the window and holler, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

I get it. My own reactions to the papers I read daily, the magazines I read weekly, and the news programs I watch occasionally are not often conducive to a happy blood pressure reading. Yet whatever my sympathies may be with this, that, or the other wrath du jour, I hope that, as the 2016 campaign unfolds, the electorate will begin to understand that anger is not a particularly healthy metric of public life.

The first Marquis of Halifax, George Savile, a 17th-century English statesman and a notable phrase-maker, ranks second only to the immortal Dr. Johnson in the number of entries in The Viking Book of Aphorisms. There, I find this small gem: “Anger is never without an argument, but seldom with a good one.” Does that ring a bell or two, my fellow Americans? It should, given the character of the presidential “debate” thus far. And that warning bell suggests that we’ve got a problem. For serious debate, conducted with civility, is the lifeblood of democracy.

Civility does not preclude passion. Given the gravity of the issues before us in 2016—which involve the future of freedom around the world and the dignity of the human person here at home—passion is entirely welcome. But passion is not anger. Anger is a glandular thing. An angry politics is a politics of the gut. A passionate politics, informed and disciplined by reason, can be a politics of the intelligence, a politics of great ideas: a politics, if you will, of sound moral judgment. And sound moral judgment is rarely, if ever, the child of anger.

Most of us recognize that in our personal lives. We ought to recognize it in our public lives, too.

In 1818, John Adams, parsing the great events in which he had played a central role, wrote this: “But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” The American Republic, in other words, began with ideas: ideas passionately held, to be sure; ideas that took shape in response to perceived grievances, without a doubt. But these were ideas (and sentiments, or feelings) about “duties and obligations”: which is to say, they were ideas and feelings about moral responsibilities.

The United States did not begin in a spasm of anger, although there were surely anger-driven incidents before and during the Revolution. And if history’s longest experiment in democratic republicanism is to reach its 250th anniversary, a mere ten years from now, in moral continuity with its founding, it won’t get there through an anger-defined, anger-driven, and anger-dominated politics. It will only get there through a rebirth of genuine political argument, which is a rational, not a glandular, thing.

Catholic citizens of the United States should be particularly sensitive to this dimension of our public life. Catholic political theory is an extension of Catholic moral theology; or to put it another way, Catholic political theory treats politics as an arena of moral reasoning and moral judgment. The Catholic citizen, as the Church understands these things, is obliged to think, not just to feel; to judge, not just to react; to exercise prudence in weighing options among usually-imperfect alternatives, not to indulge in fantasies about simplistic quick-fixes to all that ails us and the world.

Were the Catholic citizens of the United States to act that way in 2016, both God and the Republic would be well served.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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