Beyond Indignation

Americans are angry. There is restlessness across the land, the kind that fuels turbulence in the body politic. The seismic electoral shift in evidence last Tuesday was, among other things, a resounding expression of voter ire. Likely some of those touchscreens in polling places will need repair before their next use -- having been vehemently jabbed by angry forefingers.

Sweeping movements born of outrage have been part of our national narrative from the embryonic days of our republic. Our ancestors who fought the British had been provoked to wrath and fought tyranny. Decades later, a war (a pretty angry one, at that) was fought over the issue of slavery and states' rights. In fact, we have fought several wars having been provoked to national anger. The cry "Remember Pearl Harbor" was not about nostalgia, but rather furious indignation. The 18th-century English poet William Shenstone said, "Anger is a great force. If you control it, it can be transmuted into a power which can move the whole world."

But is anger enough?

Taking a cue from something Winston Churchill once said in another context, anger may be "a good starter, but it is a bad sticker." In other words, there can be a downside to untempered temper. 

Indignation about the way things have been going for several years is certainly understandable. Beginning with the final years of the Bush administration and accelerating at breakneck speed for nearly two years at the dawn of the age of Obama, we have borne witness to a steady erosion of conservative values, fiscal and social. Recent election results are undoubtedly a clear and negative reaction to the resurgence of big government-ism. The election of 2008, though a watershed moment in the sense of breaking an important barrier, turned out not to be a mandate to govern from the far left, after all.

This is where the Churchill-ism about anger being a good "starter" but not a good "sticker" comes in. Anger has been sufficient to create electoral turbulence, but there is a case to be made that exasperation is not enough to effectuate lasting change. Anger is impulsive and impatient. It can (and often does) provide the spark to get a transformative engine started, but what is unleashed can turn ugly -- especially if performance doesn't match promise. Mr. Obama and his supporters are learning this lesson right now. And if conservatives who have leveraged current political dissatisfaction into electoral triumph don't deliver constructive and effective policies, they'll feel the backlash sooner as opposed to later. There is no time for end-zone antics -- the game is far from over. 

There is much cause for a measure of conservative celebration this week. But it should be somewhat like a baseball team giddy about winning the first round of the playoffs -- there are many more games to be played before ultimate victory. Just ask the Texas Rangers. The angry mood in America -- if not relieved via solid processes and policies -- could theoretically lead to a period of political instability. The last thing we need at this point in our history is for the pendulum to jerk angrily back and forth every two years. Conservatives need to follow through on promises made while resisting the primal urge to practice any sort of scorched earth politics. Cool the campaign rhetoric for the time being and let actions speak louder than words.

Political anger is subtle, captivating, vindicating, and even comforting. But at some point, indignation must be set aside, jettisoned into the sea like an exhausted booster rocket, and wisdom and reasonableness must provide thrust thereafter. Prolonged and sustained anger tends to be toxic and destructive. It can and must be transformed into positive and constructive action. People voted out of anger in 1994, 2006, and in 2008. Now it has happened in 2010. But it is not sufficient to be mad enough to throw the old people out. The new people must have a plan and work it.

Conservatives have an opportunity right now to chart a compelling course for the future. And it would be wise to dedicate this effort to the "Gipper." Ronald Reagan was successful because he was a conservative who, while having the capacity for anger, knew that you caught more flies with honey than with vinegar. He wasn't mean or ugly, brooding or negative -- with him, it was always "morning in America," never two minutes before midnight.

Although this is no time for a revival of phrases like "kinder, gentler" or even "compassionate conservatism," any resurgence of tough-minded and authentic -- even enlightened -- conservatism in this country simply needs to have a congenial tone to match its ideological and populist bent.

David R. Stokes is a minister, columnist, author, and broadcaster. His personal website is www.davidstokeslive.com.
Americans are angry. There is restlessness across the land, the kind that fuels turbulence in the body politic. The seismic electoral shift in evidence last Tuesday was, among other things, a resounding expression of voter ire. Likely some of those touchscreens in polling places will need repair before their next use -- having been vehemently jabbed by angry forefingers.

Sweeping movements born of outrage have been part of our national narrative from the embryonic days of our republic. Our ancestors who fought the British had been provoked to wrath and fought tyranny. Decades later, a war (a pretty angry one, at that) was fought over the issue of slavery and states' rights. In fact, we have fought several wars having been provoked to national anger. The cry "Remember Pearl Harbor" was not about nostalgia, but rather furious indignation. The 18th-century English poet William Shenstone said, "Anger is a great force. If you control it, it can be transmuted into a power which can move the whole world."

But is anger enough?

Taking a cue from something Winston Churchill once said in another context, anger may be "a good starter, but it is a bad sticker." In other words, there can be a downside to untempered temper. 

Indignation about the way things have been going for several years is certainly understandable. Beginning with the final years of the Bush administration and accelerating at breakneck speed for nearly two years at the dawn of the age of Obama, we have borne witness to a steady erosion of conservative values, fiscal and social. Recent election results are undoubtedly a clear and negative reaction to the resurgence of big government-ism. The election of 2008, though a watershed moment in the sense of breaking an important barrier, turned out not to be a mandate to govern from the far left, after all.

This is where the Churchill-ism about anger being a good "starter" but not a good "sticker" comes in. Anger has been sufficient to create electoral turbulence, but there is a case to be made that exasperation is not enough to effectuate lasting change. Anger is impulsive and impatient. It can (and often does) provide the spark to get a transformative engine started, but what is unleashed can turn ugly -- especially if performance doesn't match promise. Mr. Obama and his supporters are learning this lesson right now. And if conservatives who have leveraged current political dissatisfaction into electoral triumph don't deliver constructive and effective policies, they'll feel the backlash sooner as opposed to later. There is no time for end-zone antics -- the game is far from over. 

There is much cause for a measure of conservative celebration this week. But it should be somewhat like a baseball team giddy about winning the first round of the playoffs -- there are many more games to be played before ultimate victory. Just ask the Texas Rangers. The angry mood in America -- if not relieved via solid processes and policies -- could theoretically lead to a period of political instability. The last thing we need at this point in our history is for the pendulum to jerk angrily back and forth every two years. Conservatives need to follow through on promises made while resisting the primal urge to practice any sort of scorched earth politics. Cool the campaign rhetoric for the time being and let actions speak louder than words.

Political anger is subtle, captivating, vindicating, and even comforting. But at some point, indignation must be set aside, jettisoned into the sea like an exhausted booster rocket, and wisdom and reasonableness must provide thrust thereafter. Prolonged and sustained anger tends to be toxic and destructive. It can and must be transformed into positive and constructive action. People voted out of anger in 1994, 2006, and in 2008. Now it has happened in 2010. But it is not sufficient to be mad enough to throw the old people out. The new people must have a plan and work it.

Conservatives have an opportunity right now to chart a compelling course for the future. And it would be wise to dedicate this effort to the "Gipper." Ronald Reagan was successful because he was a conservative who, while having the capacity for anger, knew that you caught more flies with honey than with vinegar. He wasn't mean or ugly, brooding or negative -- with him, it was always "morning in America," never two minutes before midnight.

Although this is no time for a revival of phrases like "kinder, gentler" or even "compassionate conservatism," any resurgence of tough-minded and authentic -- even enlightened -- conservatism in this country simply needs to have a congenial tone to match its ideological and populist bent.

David R. Stokes is a minister, columnist, author, and broadcaster. His personal website is www.davidstokeslive.com.

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