On Anger

By Steven Miller
  • Monday, November 1, 2004

When Howard Dean blew himself out of the presidential sweepstakes this spring, he was doing his best, as all candidates do, to express the essential outlook of his supporters.

Unfortunately for Dr. Dean, he succeeded a little too well.

Caught up in the moment, he instinctively captured and gave voice to the manic excitement of his immediate audience of “Deaniacs” and, therefore, to the frenzied emotion of the Democratic base generally. His banshee-like howl—soon known nationwide as the Dean Scream—had an effect opposite to what the doctor intended, however: it embarrassed large numbers of Democrats. Suddenly, in the emotional mirroring performed for them by their most dynamic candidate, they began to sense that, to the nation at large, their furious passion looked increasingly like something deranged.

Almost immediately, in large numbers, party rank-and-file wheeled away from Dean and embraced the more presentable, if ponderous, senator from Massachusetts. Newly sensitized to their risk of resembling nutcases, the Ds also began an effort to soft-pedal their fury. At the party’s nominating convention in Boston, in a charade staged entirely for TV, Democratic delegates for four days followed orders and sternly stifled verbalizations of their Anybody-But-Bush ferocity. Paradoxically, however, their blander-than-thou strategy—so out of character for the party—only emphasized anew their flight from candor.

What is it about the Ds’ anger that so frightened their party’s strategists—even though those same strategists have, time and time again over the last year and a half, eagerly incited and stimulated that anger?

The fact is, the popular perception—and the perception of the Democrats themselves—is fundamentally correct: there is something unhinged and seriously dangerous about the party’s descent into rage. That’s because anger, sufficiently incited, swamps the human ability to reason. And when people can be infected with such emotional affect, they can be controlled; control enough people this way and you can subvert a nation. Thus, rage has always been the conscienceless demagogue’s royal road to power.

The modern world’s first major experience with this phenomenon was 18th Century France, where Jean-Jacques-Rousseau-worshipping mobs of rage-intoxicated Parisians, in an orgy of manic bloodletting, pranced through the streets happily waving above them on pikes the heads of scores of innocent victims. In less than three years the resulting Terror—the word terrorism itself comes out of the French Revolution—had sent an estimated 40,000 largely harmless folk to the guillotine. For years the ongoing carnage continued; the wildly bloodthirsty “Committee of Public Safety” was followed by multiple unsuccessful coup attempts, a corrupt four-year Directorate and then, finally, in 1899, by the successful Brumaire coup, the first stage of Napoleon’s dictatorship, which lasted on and off until 1821.

The 20th Century heirs of Rousseau and the French Revolution—Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler—all realized that incited anger offered them strategically key leverage. The Austrian corporal, for example, in one 1923 Munich speech, declaimed that “If a people is to become free it needs pride and will-power, defiance: hate, hate, and once again hate!” Yet, what hate brought to Europe, of course, was the very antithesis of freedom.

A major reason that power-seeking demagogues are so eager to incite rage and other emotions is that such affect is tremendously infectious—and thus inherently subversive. In the words of the late great Jungian analyst, Marie Louise Von Franz, “unquenched emotional affect underneath [is] like a suffocated fire burning and smoldering all the time, and … is highly infectious. [This] can be seen in cases of explosions or destructiveness in families or nations, or in other social situations. The infectiousness of affect, or emotion, is a great danger and is responsible for a tremendous amount of evil.” (Emphasis added.)

Like Carl Jung, Von Franz—a Swiss-Austrian born in 1916—spoke and wrote of the modern descent into possession by evil as a close-up witness to the 20th Century’s German catastrophe. She had seen how “a lack of respect toward the infection and destructiveness” of such toying with human darkness leads “intellectual people,… infantile as far as ethical and feeling problems are concerned, [to] step inadvertently into the most horrible evil without even noticing what they are doing.”

For a year now, high-profile Democratic politicians have hammered the Bush administration with countless incendiary charges that have no basis in fact but do have the utility, among the undiscerning, of displacing honest policy debate with the fog of anger.

May the Great Spirit have mercy upon those power-seekers’ souls.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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