Angry white men

There is a lot of misdirected rage in America, but the politics of anger works. And we’re starting to see it in Canada.

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

You can’t put a price on happiness, but the cost of outrage is easy enough to tally. The Republican Party’s 16-day temper tantrum over Obamacare shuttered large parts of the U.S. government and left 800,000 civil servants sitting at home without pay. In the Washington area alone, that translated to $217 million a day in lost wages. More than $3 billion of direct government spending on services went by the wayside. Analysts predict the knock-on effects will shave about 0.5 per cent off the country’s fourth-quarter GDP growth—a total hit in the $20-billion to $24-billion range. And Republicans are now plumbing historic depths in the opinion polls, with 70 per cent of Americans saying they disapprove of how Republican legislators have been doing their jobs.

The Senate-brokered deal ending the dispute made no changes whatsoever to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. Sen. John McCain, the former Republican presidential nominee, described the failed quest to derail government insurance as a “fool’s errand.” Mitch McConnell, the party’s leader in the Senate, vowed that a shutdown will never happen again on his watch. But those who drove the strategy—Washington’s new breed of populist “Tea Party” agitators—made no apologies. “The American people rose up and spoke with an overwhelming voice,” said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, declaring the rout a “remarkable” victory. “This battle will continue.”

Obama campaigned for re-election on his health care plan, and handily won both the popular vote and the electoral college. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law. And while polls suggest only 46 per cent of Americans support the changes he’s making, Obamacare is still significantly more popular than the Republicans (32 per cent) or its Tea Party faction (26 per cent.)

So, why was an entire country held hostage as a handful of U.S. representatives and senators sought to refight a war that had already been lost? Because the politics of anger work. In an age where almost half of eligible voters can’t even be bothered to cast a ballot, stoking rage has become one of the most dependable ways of cutting through the apathy. Aggrieved people turn up at rallies. They give their time and their money. (A recent University of Michigan study found voters are three times as likely to click through on an angry political web ad, as an informative or neutral one.) They flock to news outlets and blogs that feed their indignation. And they turn out in greater numbers on Election Day.

The Tea Party may never have broad appeal, but in its brief history, it’s been remarkably successful at harnessing the angry grassroots to overthrow mainstream Republican candidates, and push the party ever further to the right. In the bruising fight for the 2012 presidential nomination, Mitt Romney ended up twisting himself from a Massachusetts moderate into the most conservative candidate in a generation in order to blunt their challenge. And three of the Republican front runners for 2016—Cruz, and his fellow senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul—proudly and loudly lay claim to the Tea Party banner.

While their extreme obsessions with guns, God and gays don’t resonate that strongly on this side of the border, Canadian politicians have taken notice of the gains that can be made by wielding wedge issues to energize voters. Rob Ford rode resentment against downtown “elites” all the way to the mayor’s office in Toronto, and his insistence on suburban subways may keep him there, despite his shambolic record and personal life. The current debate in Quebec over the proposed charter of values plays on both voters’ better and baser impulses—protecting the rights of women on one hand, while curtailing those of religious minorities on the other. And in Ottawa, Stephen Harper’s Tories continue to pursue a “tough on crime” agenda—promising to keep murderers behind bars until the end of their lives in the recent Throne Speech—in the face of a national crime rate that has fallen to its lowest level in four decades.

It isn’t hard to deduce the kind of voter that rage and recriminations play best with: white, male and older. Mitt Romney won 48.1 per cent of the overall vote in 2012, but enjoyed seven per cent more support among men than Obama. And while whites make up about 70 per cent of the U.S. electorate, 88 per cent of Romney’s ballots were cast by Caucasians. Almost 60 per cent of supporters of the Tea Party, which started as a protest against government bailouts in 2009, are men. And that outrage over the state of the American economy continues to be its fuel. (The pattern of U.S. job losses that followed the 2008 financial market meltdown was so striking that economists dubbed it a “man-cession,” with males suffering 80 per cent of the layoffs.)

In the long run, America’s changing demographics will mute such appeals. In 2012, more than half the children born in the U.S. were classified as members of a visible minority. And the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that within three decades whites will no longer be in the majority.

But for now, they work just fine with the millions who have been unable, or unwilling, to adapt to the rapidly changing times. Forget soccer moms and NASCAR dads. It’s all about Angry White Men.

As he criss-crossed the United States seeking out Tea Partiers, men’s rights groups, white supremacists and the professionally angry over the last few years, Michael Kimmel hit upon an effective way to introduce himself. “I’m your worst nightmare,” he would say. “I’m a liberal New York Jewish sociologist, and I live in the bluest city in the bluest state in the country.”

The upfront approach tended to get the conversation rolling right away. And the Stony Brook University professor, a noted authority on male identity, discovered a certain amount of empathy for their plight. “There’s a tremendous sense of something being lost or slipping away,” he says. “These are globalization’s losers. They had union jobs or small businesses that have disappeared. Their wives are working. Their kids talk back to them, and the government ignores them.”

Still, his new book, Angry White Men, makes it clear that he believes their rage is either wholly inappropriate, or entirely misdirected. Brought up in a culture where their race and gender conferred certain advantages, some older, white American males might feel they have been left behind by a rapidly changing society, but that doesn’t justify lashing out at women and minorities. “I think the anger is real, but it’s not true,” says Kimmel, who suggests that the Rush Limbaughs of the world fuel a sense of “aggrieved entitlement” and keep it channelled in a certain direction. “These guys spend a lot of time yelling at the wrong enemies.”

After all, the vast majority of men have quietly adapted to the last few decades of change at home, in the workplace, and the public sphere, he notes. And those who haven’t are more like dinosaurs than America’s founding patriots. “They don’t have the skill set—emotionally, psychologically, or socially—to cope,” he says. “They’ve staked their claim in the downwardly mobile marketplace.”

His conclusions are similar to those that Charles Murray, the controversial author of The Bell Curve, arrived at from the other end of the political spectrum. In his 2012 work Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, the conservative scholar argued that white, blue-collar Americans have seriously lost their way in the last few decades. Faced with stagnating or declining incomes, what used to be the lower middle class has slid steadily downwards. And as joblessness has skyrocketed so has crime, illegitimate births, and disability rates. “Our nation is coming apart at the seams—not ethnic seams, but the seams of class,” Murray wrote. Although he differs in where to pin the blame. According to Murray, much of the fault lies with an educated and liberal elite, who continue to live their lives according to American values, but refuse to hold everyone else to a similar standard.

Of course when it comes to anger, no one class, or part of the political spectrum, holds a monopoly. The focus on Angry White Men tends to obscure a more generalized societal rise in rage. Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, who studies anger, theorizes that the rise of the Internet has created a far more aggressive culture. People now immerse themselves in an online world where their opinions or prejudices are constantly validated, and rarely if ever intellectually challenged. “These days it’s much easier to only listen to people who think exactly the way you do,” says Martin. At the same time, the physical distance, anonymity and click-and-send immediacy offered by the web has made lashing out virtually consequence-free. “I’m not sure there’s necessarily more anger than there used to be about politics, but it’s certainly more visible.”

The same holds true for Canada. Although the tradition of “big tent” political parties, and the presence of more than two options on the national political scene, serves to keep the debate slightly more civil. Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker says the dog-whistle political issues like abortion, religion and guns that are so divisive—and effective in whipping up anger—in the U.S., don’t really work in this country. And he notes the gender gap in Canadian politics is more about compassionate women, who cluster on the left, than right-leaning, angry men. But Stephen Harper’s relentless focus on the economy, crime and advancing the idea that government should do less, not more, has forged a uniquely Canadian coalition of the dissatisfied—comprised of traditional conservatives in the West, and recent immigrants who have settled in Ontario’s 905 suburbs. And as Bricker and Globe columnist John Ibbitson outlined in their 2013 book, The Big Shift, it has the potential to alter the political landscape. “If these trends persist what you’re going to see is the Conservatives becoming like the Liberals in the last century,” he says: a new, natural governing party.

That’s a stark contrast to the seemingly dismal prospects for Republicans. After the drubbing Romney took in 2012, there was a nascent movement to remake the party with an eye on America’s changing 21st-century demographics. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham succinctly put it to the Washington Post. But strangely, the abject failure of the government shutdown strategy seems to have made those outreach efforts even harder. Ultra-conservative action groups like the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity, which pumped hundreds of millions into the battle to defund Obamacare, now appear poised to turn their guns against the moderates who backed the compromise end to the standoff. And the Tea Partiers, who already count more than half of the 231-strong Republican caucus in the House as sympathizers, have been emboldened, rather than chastened.

“This whole thing hasn’t been popular with Americans for a while, but these folks aren’t quitters,” says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. “And they don’t think they’ve been beaten yet.” The co-author of a new book on the Tea Party, Skocpol says the grassroots movement is now being leveraged by powerful interests in the pursuit of long-standing conservative policy goals like cutting taxes, blocking environmental regulations, and the dismantling of Medicare and Social Security. And as long as Obama remains in office, the anger that fuels the base will remain red hot. “He’s a perfect storm,” she says. “He symbolizes every one of the changes that Tea Partiers fear.”

In his book, Michael Kimmel argues that American masculinity is at the end of an era. The Angry White Male, he says, has reached a tipping point. “The truth is that we’ve never had more gender, racial and sexual equality than we do right now.” The trend line is undeniable and unstoppable, he says.

But how long it might take until the dinosaurs he writes about are truly extinct is hard to say. At this point the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination is Hillary Clinton. Would there be any less rage in America over a female president than a black one? “That’s a really good question,” says Kimmel.