The Sources of American Anger

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Behind the anger over the Arizona immigration mess, the Ground Zero mosque, the economy, and the new directions in foreign policy are some recurring general themes that reverberate in each particular new controversy. In sum, they explain everything from the tea parties to the wholly negative perception of Congress to the slide in presidential popularity.

1. Two sets of rules. The public senses there are two standards in America — one for elite overseers, quite another for the supposedly not-to-be-trusted public. The anger over this hypocrisy surfaces over matters from the trivial to the profound. Sometimes the pique arises because the spread-the-wealth, we-all-have-skin-in-shared-sacrifice presidential sermons don’t apply to those who do the preaching, as in the president’s serial polo-shirted golf excursions or Michelle’s movable feast from Marbella to Martha’s Vineyard.

More profoundly, an Al Gore, a Timothy Geithner, a John Kerry, a John Edwards, a Charles Rangel — the luminaries who call for bigger government, higher taxes, and more green coercion — now appear to the public as disingenuous, living lives in abject contradiction to the utopian bromides they would apply to others. So too with the media. The opinion makers at a failingNew York TimesNewsweek, or CBS lost readers and viewers not just because of changing technologies, but because of incessant editorializing in which the educated and affluent, the winners in our system, berated the less educated and less well off, the strugglers in our system, as bigoted or selfish or both.

How, for example, can Americans be asked to pay higher power bills in a recession to subsidize wind power, when the green Kennedy clan worries about windmills marring its vacation-spot view?

2. The bigot card. In reductionist terms, the public now accepts that when particular groups fail to win a 51 percent majority on a particular issue, they resort to invoking racism and prejudice — odd, when candidate Obama promised a new climate of unity and tolerance. Moreover, that disturbing trend has something to do with the president himself, who has injected racial grievance into everything from the Skip Gates controversy to the debate over the Arizona immigration law.

When the open-borders interests, or the gay-marriage advocates, or the adherents of the Ground Zero mosque cannot convince a majority of Americans that their agenda bodes well for the country, they almost instinctively fall back on the charge that America is xenophobic, homophobic, or Islamophobic. Yet the public infers that these charges reflect sour grapes rather than honest analysis: Had Arizona legislators or California voters supported the progressive agenda, then, as with the 2008 Obama victory, they would have been praised in Newsweek and on NPR for their moral sense and compassion. In short, the bigot card has played itself out and is now not much more than a political ploy to win an argument through calumny when logic and persuasion have failed.

3. The law? What law? Americans accept that they cannot pass legislation in violation of the Constitution. But they do not believe that a single judge can nullify the electoral will of millions without good cause. Thus in Arizona and California, there is a sense that judges who favor open borders or gay marriage are willing to use the pretense of constitutional issues to enact such agendas despite their current unpopularity. In a general landscape in which contractual obligations are nullified, as in the Chrysler bailout, and punitive fines are imposed quite arbitrarily, as in the BP cleanup, many believe the Obama administration applies the law in terms of perceived social utility. What is deemed best for the country by an elite few is what the law must be molded and changed to advance.

If there are, for example, not sufficient votes in the Congress to pass amnesty through legislative means, why not bypass federal law through a cabinet officer’s executive fiat?

4. The futility of taxes. We talk of returning to the Clinton income-tax schedules. Yet in the late 1990s, those hikes ended up, along with the Republican cuts in mandates, balancing the budget — without new health-care surcharges, or talk of a VAT, or caps lifted off income subject to Social Security taxes. Not now. The public recognizes that the advocates of higher taxes are not willing to make the sort of across-the-board spending cuts that once succeeded in balancing the budget. In other words, those who will start paying much more of their income to the government in the form of taxes fret that, unlike the 1990s, this time the additional federal revenue won’t balance the budget, and will be all for naught.

Worse still are two corollaries. First, we are in a ceaseless spiral in which each new tax increase will lead to justifications for more spending and thus to still higher taxes. Public employees, fairly or not, have morphed in the public mind from civil servants to pigs at the salary and pension trough, and from disinterested government workers to members of a liberal social movement that will perpetuate a federal agenda of race, class, and gender politics and higher taxes through payback bloc voting at the polls.

Second, there is a growing suspicion that this administration believes in a “gorge the beast” philosophy, the antithesis of Reagan’s “starve the beast.” In other words, redistribution may be a desired end in and of itself. If greater spending demands higher taxes, perhaps that is socially preferable, since income is an arbitrary construct predicated on some sort of social injustice. In turn, the remedy demands that the federal government impose an equality of result to correct the inequities of the cavalier free market that so unfairly pays some too much and others too little.

In short, are our taxes not merely paying for federal expenditures, but also quite justifiably serving to confiscate income that we did not rightfully earn?

5. Disingenuousness. There is also a growing belief that the Obama administration is advancing an agenda that it cannot be fully candid about, because that agenda does not command broad support. As a result, we are habitually asked to believe that what administration appointees or supporters say is not what they really mean, or at least was taken out of context.

Justice Sotomayor did not really mean that wise Latinas make better judges than white males. Van Jones did not really mean that George W. Bush was in on 9/11, or that white youths are more likely to be mass murderers, or that whites are chronic polluters of the ghetto. Eric Holder no more meant that Americans are cowards than one of Anita Dunn’s heroes really is the mass-murdering Mao. We should not believe that the top priority of the head of NASA is to advance Islamic outreach, or that the president himself thinks that police routinely act stupidly, stereotype, or arrest innocent people on their way to get their kids some ice cream. Imam Rauf did not really say that we created bin Laden, or that we kill more innocent Muslims than al-Qaeda kills innocent non-Muslims.

All this dissimulation started with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose mistake was not saying the outrageous things he said — Mr. Obama and the compliant media had contextualized his corpus of hate well enough — but finally insulting the media at the National Press Club. The former was seen as a misdemeanor; the latter proved a felony.

Do Obama supporters, then, reveal their true beliefs only in gaffes and unguarded moments, while filling their official statements and communiqués with pretense?

6. A culpable America? Finally, the public has added up the apology tours, the bowing, and the constant emphasis on race, class, and gender crimes, and concluded that this administration sees America, past and present, as the story of a culpable majority denying noble minorities their rights — period.

In addition, Obama and his crew see America in isolation, without comparison to the wretchedness that exists in so much of the world outside our borders. So a logical disconnect is never quite explained. If America is so xenophobic and culpable, why would millions of Mexicans or Middle Eastern Muslims wish to immigrate here — and what exactly is America doing to attract them that their own countries are not? If Michelle Obama felt that she could not be proud of America before Barack Obama’s accession, was it the free-market system that both provoked her ire and created the capital for her to jet to Marbella?

In other words, with the race/class/gender critique of the Obamians comes very little appreciation of the bounty, freedom, and affluence that they so eagerly embrace. Surely someone in the past — perhaps even white males — must have been doing something right for America to evolve into a place that our present-day critics apparently enjoy.

How will all this play out?

There are many millions of Americans who have a rising stake either in receiving reallocated federal money or in administering its distribution. For nearly half a century, the public schools have been telling millions of children that America’s preeminence is ill-gotten, based largely on exploitation of less fortunate others, here and abroad. So the country is divided, and a president claiming to be the great healer of our age is proving to be the most divisive chief executive since Richard Nixon — and, in the view of an increasing majority of Americans, by his own intent.

©2010 Victor Davis Hanson

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