Democrats and the Anger Gap

BY Susan J. Douglas

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Maybe progressives and Democrats should focus a little less on generating enthusiasm and more on generating anger.

Every election season seems to bring forth a catch phrase characterizing the electorate that is, invariably, a mischaracterization of people’s motives and attitudes. Think “soccer moms” from the 1990s, that allegedly homogeneous group of van-driving suburban women, or the much vaunted “values voters” of 2004 who, it turned out upon review of exit polling data, were not voting on “values” all that much.

Now we have that ubiquitous term, the “enthusiasm gap,” meant to characterize the difference between energized Republicans and flaccid, defeatist Democrats. (See “Minding the Enthusiasm Gap,” page 18.) But this isn’t an “enthusiasm gap” as far as I can see; it’s a “hatred gap.”

I’m sure each of you has, from your state or region, an example of bigotry passing as “enthusiasm.” Here in Michigan we have one Andrew Shirvell, the Republican assistant attorney general who has gone into full meltdown mode because University of Michigan students elected Chris Armstrong as the first openly gay president of our student assembly. Shirvell launched a rabidly crazed blog, “Chris Armstrong Watch,” in which he featured a photograph of Armstrong with a swastika and the demand “resign” superimposed over his face. Shirvell’s beef with Armstrong? He is a “Nazi” (what is it with the Republican’s Nazi fetish these days?)–“Satan’s representative on the student assembly” who is engaged in a “wild-eyed pursuit of implementing the radical homosexual agenda at all costs.” Oh, and a “racist” to boot. Remember, this slander and harassment is coming from one of the top law enforcement officers in the state.

Shirvell has been stalking Armstrong both in person and online with a vicious passion that borders on the…hey, wait a minute, haven’t we been here before? Why is it that the most vehement homophobes, who have used their power to restrict the rights of everyone in the LGBT community, turn out to be deeply closeted? But I digress.

Back to Shirvell–here’s the best part. His boss, Republican Attorney General Michael Cox, has devoted his tenure to campaigning against cyber-bullying. When the local ABC affiliate, WXYZ-TV, reported on Shirvell’s obsession and exposed his allegations against Armstrong to be totally false, Shirvell turned his sights on the station’s reporter Ross Jones, whose story he characterized as “pro-Armstrong, anti-Christian propaganda pieces that would have undoubtedly made Joseph Goebbels proud.” Ah, don’t you just love “enthusiasm”?

Whether Shirvell is any loopier than Christine O’Donnell (the “masturbation is adultery” and “evolution is a myth” candidate in Delaware) or Sharron Angle of Nevada (abolish every federal agency, no abortions ever, even in the case of rape or incest) is unclear, but what animates them is not “enthusiasm.” It is resentment, ignorance and bigotry.

So maybe progressives and Democrats should focus a little less on generating enthusiasm and more on generating anger. Yes, many of us are disappointed by President Barack Obama’s first two years, wishing he had been much more bold and much less obliging to his mortal foes in the Republican Party. But we need to remind ourselves about the combination of fury, disgust and despair that propelled Obama into office.

So here’s what we might become angry about if the Republicans take control of Congress. The extension of tax cuts to the richest Americans. The party that turned a government surplus into a staggering deficit will once again control the national purse strings. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” will not be repealed, and maybe we’ll get some more anti-gay legislation to boot. Social Security may be weakened. And while we didn’t get the healthcare bill we wanted or needed, wouldn’t people be disgusted if the insurance companies could once again deny coverage for pre-existing conditions? Obama better keep on getting angry too, and hit the “veto” button on any of this.

Republicans, with considerable help from a Tea Party-addicted news media, are getting away with a weird alchemy that transforms anger into “enthusiasm.” So remember what it was like when Bush was president, get your angry self on, and then, please, find the progressive candidate, cause or organization of your choice and write a check, organize and vote. 

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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