What does healthy anger look like in politics?

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Illustration of Bernie Sanders pointing his finger. Image: Donkey Hotey/flickr

In the political deserts of the mid-20th century, Canadian poet Irving Layton wrote, "A friend tells me I should not write/About the workers and their plight/For poetry like dress admits of fashion/And this is not the year for passion." Actually, it’s always time for passion in politics, but only when real.

I’m thinking of the ignoble behaviour of U.S. Democratic senate leader Chuck Schumer recently. First he shut down the U.S. government in the name of "Dreamers" -- young immigrants who’ve never lived elsewhere but are threatened by Trump with deportation. Mere hours later, having done some electoral math, Schumer retreated and agreed to keep Washington humming.

(For the record, I hate how we follow U.S. politics here, as if we were there. But that battle’s over, so let’s get on with dissecting their reality.)

It was a defeat and humiliation for anti-Trump forces. Could it have been different? Could Schumer have persevered, giving hope to the Dreamers, comforting the afflicted, while also winning political points. Yes, I’d say, but if and only if he’d been able to summon authentic moral outrage, which isn’t in him.

Genuine political anger is an asset in politics but also a rarity. That may be why it’s an asset: it rings true amidst falseness. It comes as a relief. Most anger sounds like it was generated by an outrage program.

Consider an exception:

In the first debate of our 2015 election, the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair was needling Justin Trudeau about the referendum margin Quebec needed to separate. What’s the number, Justin? Give us a number -- till Trudeau exploded: "You want a number? Nine! Nine!"

It shattered the calm. It was unnerving. Had he lost it? Was he barking in German? (He meant the nine Supreme Court justices.) Perhaps he’d prepped for this but waited till his eruption was unstoppable. It probably won him the election.

Compare him in Davos this week. Asked why his concern for workers should be taken seriously when all he offers is some employment insurance, he began, "Obviously, there is concern and sympathy …" I quote from memory but note the passive diction and detached tone.

Yet those Davos elites are meeting in the shadow of stats showing 82 per cent of wealth generated in the world this year went to 1 per cent at the top, while the 50 per cent at the bottom got none of it. They sat like bowling pins before him, begging for it. It was the ideal moment for an angry Nein! (Not nine).

This kind of therapeutic explosion is sometimes called healthy anger. Its opposite is seething rage, which demagogues deliberately manipulate, as a means to their end. Harper stoked resentment; it seemed like the only way to electoral success for someone like him in Canada. Trump seethes, and unbottles it in others. They may yearn for relief, but don’t find it, just more festering.

Bernie Sanders has the healthiest anger on the current political scene. He’s for the Dreamers, he voted against Schumer’s gutless backdown. But he never loses touch with the taproot of his rage: corporate economic criminals. This week he did a TV town hall on public health care. What’s the point? Schumer would say, it’s not what "people" are talking about. This is not the time for your passion. Sanders doesn’t care, it’s who he is and what he feels. People respond to that.

Now imagine, if you can (with difficulty), Sanders in Davos. He denounces the millioneahs and billioneahs before him. How can he resist? Someone corrects him, saying Davos disdains millionaires; here we only have billionaires. He smiles that infectious grin. This is healthy anger. He knows it’s funny and shares the laugh. The smile unlocks something: that we’re all connected, anger notwithstanding.

Chekhov, it’s said, changed drama forever with the stage direction, "She smiles through her tears." Political passion works if you can smile winsomely through your implacable rage. It’s not easy but it’s worth it.

The healthiest rager I’ve known -- to return to workers and their plight -- was union leader Kent Rowley. He thundered on behalf of principled, independent Canadian unions. He mostly failed. He was the Don Quixote of Canadian labour. Knowing his end was near and still youngish -- in his late 50s -- he told his comrades in B.C., that after he died, to take his ashes and throw them in the faces of the Board of Trade. He didn’t say it bitterly, he was smiling.

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star

Image: Donkey Hotey/Flickr

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