If there was ever a time American politics weren’t about outrage, I’m sure I don’t know when it was. As far as I know, it’s always been about who’s able to conjure the most anger about a given topic, be it taxes, immigrants or the decay of the good, old-fashioned American way of life, whatever that is or was. At least, it feels that way.
Even in 2008, back when Barack Obama’s campaign offered hope as an alternative to frustration, the opposition offered outrage after outrage, from demands for a long-form birth certificate to secret Muslim conspiracies, only to chip away at what little momentum could be mustered. Outrage is the long-con and the easiest answer to any complicated problems. Like a kid raised on algebra trying to work through a calculus problem. The end result is usually a broken pencil, a wadded up piece of paper and shattered calculator. It’s not that the kid is dumb; it’s that the kid hasn’t been taught what he needs to know to solve the problem.
The current strain of outrage, so far as I can tell, started sometime in the early 90s. The Republicans–led by legendary mama’s boy Newt Gingrich–took umbrage to Bill Clinton’s surge into the White House. Emboldened by corruption scandals of Democratic politicians, they set about detailing the virtues of the American way of life, then drafted the Contract with America and convinced the nation that Democrats were nothing but corrupt, tax-and-spend liberals infringing on your right to be an American. It worked.
In the 1994 midterm elections, the Republicans picked up 54 seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate. They were the majority. Since then, they’ve maintained control of the House of Representatives, except for a blip from 2007 to 2011. And they’ve jockeyed for control of the Senate since then, too, giving it up for about eight years to fairly narrow Democratic majorities.
Then came the Bush administration. Then came Michele Bachmann. Then the Tea Party. Then Sarah Palin. Then Rick Santorum. Newt Gingrinch returned. Now, Donald Trump and his cavalcade of vitriole. Before we can strike the nadir of populist clap-trappery run amok, the floor crumbles out beneath us and lower and lower we go.
I suppose too many people feel ignored and underrepresented. Too many people are talked down to. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so darn easy to bring their worse fears to a boil.
Ever seen an angry dog? If you wave a stick in its face, it swivels its head around, chasing that stick with its head, chopping its jaws whenever it gets close. If the dog simply keeps chasing that stick, the dog gets tired. Eventually, you can just sit there and poke the angry dog with the stick because it’s too damn exhausted to fight back. You know what that blessed little animal doesn’t notice? There’s a hand holding on to that stick. And that hand is attached to an arm. And that arm is attached to a big, fat juicy person. It’s too outraged about getting poked by a stick over and over again, so the stick must be the problem.
Outrage is virulent. Outrage is a disease. It captures our attention, whips us into a frenzy then leaves us shaking our fists and foaming at the mouth about this thing or that thing over there. That is, until something else comes along. Then we chase that down, too, forgetting about that other thing we were so outraged about a few minutes ago. Or we tear ourselves apart, chasing multiple outrages, heading off into multiple directions.
It clouds our minds, and that confusion creates more stuff to get outraged about until there’s nothing left. It consumes everything until nothing is left. Then it eats itself up.
The only good thing about outrage, so far as I can tell, is that it brings a problem into our consciousness. I often ask myself why I’m so bothered why something happened. Sometimes, the answer is evident. Because a person’s life was carelessly taken away. Or something was stolen without explanation. Or just plain cowardice. That always gets me riled up.
Then I ask why I’m so angry about it happening in the first place, which is more complicated to answer. Sometimes, that makes me feel like I’m not doing enough in the world to make it better. Maybe I’m upset because I simply oppose the the other person’s point of view. If so, I try to understand why that person views the world in the way that person chooses to view the world. Maybe it’s something that can be changed. Maybe it’s not. As I tread down these disparate paths, I find anger, frustration, outrage and offense come from a feelings of helplessness, an inability to act, the feelings of being ignored or, in some cases, the primal emotion of pure, untainted fear of the unknown.
In these moments, the feeling of outrage feels less necessary. Having a sense of understanding about the world and the way I feel about a given topic helps understand the entire situation. That old empathy card really can’t get played enough.
The hard part is when there’s no good solution at hand, when facts are fables and conversations feel like you’re stuck in an M.C. Escher drawing. Well, I’m not sure there’s a solution for those moments. But really, that should be a truly rare occurrence. When it happens too often, though, I’d venture to guess other factors are afoot. We aren’t discussing the real problem.
Which brings us full circle.
Part of the problem with our political system is it’s inability to evolve beyond the stimulus of outrage. We live in a complex world. Very few of the problems we’ll face from here on out will have simple solutions. Outrage isn’t going to solve a single one. It’s simply another weapon of mass destruction. So, when someone’s selling it to you, it’s in their best interest, not yours, not anyone’s. Right now, that’s all I really know.