Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reset Partisanship and Anger.....

Lots of anger out there. In the past days, I have received missives from four good friends of different ages, backgrounds, experience and communities (although all US citizens). They are all liberal Democrats and early Obama supporters, and all four of them sent angry, even furious diatribes against right-wing politicians, commentators, and George W. Bush.

Even the always cool Barack Obama is angry.

Less surprisingly, there is anger on the right as well, labeling Obama as "socialist". Yahoo has been documenting it. And the New York Times had a front page story Monday on Glen Beck, the new post-Lou Dobbs mouthpiece of angry conservative populism.

Nearly everyone's in a bad mood. You, too? I am especially curious about anger from the left because I would have thought that my liberal friends still would be euphoric over Obama's victory and exulting in his commitment to press forward on an ambitious domestic agenda on education, energy, and health care, even in the face of the current economic turmoil. My guess is that their anger is the tip of some iceberg and I wonder what is under the surface.

I have two theories The first was triggered by a conversation with my wife, Lynn Staley, and an e-mail from my friend Z.from Toronto. Perhaps my correspondents are disappointed in Obama, because he has not lived up to all the expectations they put on him. They cannot acknowledge that he is human after all, and they will not criticize him for fear that they will further undermine his popular support. So they have focused their frustration on the old familiar targets: Rush Limbaugh, W, Dick Cheney, and their fellow travelers.

But it was inevitable that Obama would let people down. They put him on the pedestal with many mutually exclusive expectations. They assumed naively that the Congress would stop being representative and would fall in line.

This explanation fits well with my favorite definition of leadership: leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb. See, for example, Obama on Afghanistan, as a specific case in point.

A second and related idea is that people are anxious and worried about their own futures, their shrinking retirement accounts, their job loss, their depleted available cash supply, and the general uncertainty that we all face, and have focused their anxiety on those same old and easy targets.

Of course, those on the right have the same personal worries, but they have an easier target in Obama and his Administration, and then there's the Congress, the historical target of choice for anyone, any time.

There is nothing wrong with anger. It is a normal human emotion. Question, of course, is what to do with it. Sudhir Venkatesh's provocative op-ed in the Sunday New York Times News of the Week in Review suggested that the the populist rage has not been more focused, constructively or destructively, because we angry people are also embarrassed about our contributions to the mess, our years of overextending our debt and consumption.

So what would constructive harnessing of our anger look like? On the left, it is about supporting Obama, realizing that he is only human, that he is trying lots of experiments and that he and Geithner are only guessing, and then hoping that he will have the courage to keep trying different approaches until he gets it right. Be patient. Give him time. Forget wanting to be able to say "I told you so," a la Paul Krugman as seen on ABC's Sunday news program. With friends like Krugman in an economy that depends for its recovery on a psychological confidence, who needs enemies?

For Republicans, it is about creating and pushing alternatives, and holding Obama's feet to the fire, not calling him names and, worst of all, not hoping he fails. For a look at what that might mean substantively, read Carlos Watson's clever take-off on the AIG resignation letter published on the Huffington Post imagining Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's resignation letter to the Republican Party or Hendrik Hertzberg's essay advocating temporarily suspending payroll taxes (a tax cut!) in a recent Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker.

Look, I love politics. I am a junkie. But this is no time for politics as we know it. We are in a moment of fundamental change and opportunity. Take that anger and that anxiety and channel it into activity that will help change yourself and change the world.


Dana Beyer, M.D. said...

Beautifully said, Marty. Thank you :-)

Rodrigo Silva Ortúzar said...

I speccially liked the last part. That's what we all really need, not only in the US, but in the whole world.

Missouri Quail Guy said...

Great post.

Marty, I'm struggling with our current leadership and policies. However, I promise to give it a chance. The entire process takes time and as you said, "Leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb."

Franklincovey said...

This is an excellent review.I would love to read more about this topic.