--from the 1976 film “Network”
America is angry. Very angry.
This narrative has dominated the media’s coverage of the election, since it kicked off a little more than a year ago. Just read the news…about the many, many folks in our land today who are really p.o.’ed. Vexed. Frustrated. Riled up. Spoiling for a fight. Convinced that things are going in the wrong direction for America and that someone, their candidate, is the one to speak up and out and give voice to this collective ire.
Anger from the left. Anger from the right. Anger from all sides.
As one who thinks and writes a lot about being in community, I confess I’ve failed to take this civic anger very seriously. I’ve dismissed it as somehow limited to a small group of hyper-partisan people, citizens on the fringes of national opinion. You know: the cliché livid lefties and rancorous rightists, who always show up at the drop of a hat for any protest. Who scream until they are hoarse at political rallies and wear their political t-shirts as badges of honor.
I haven’t always seen this anger as a real phenomenon. Thought it must be a candidate just manipulating his or her followers for votes. Or it’s the media, always pointing the cameras at the most red hot of situations and people, to drive up ratings and internet clicks. Or I reject anger because, honestly, it makes me uncomfortable, especially as a person of faith. I’m in the business of trying to bring folks together in community, not tear them apart. I want to plead: “Can’t we all just get along?”
But what might happen, if, instead, more and more of us, especially we who are not that angry, took this collective anger seriously? Saw our “angry” neighbors as sincere, authentic, and very real in their hurt. Looked beyond angry slogans (BUILD A WALL! WALL STREET IS EVIL!) and got underneath this passion and energy. Paid attention to the legitimate concerns and gripes and fears of our neighbors. We might realize that while things may be good, even great for “me”, things are not always that great right now for “thee”.
Anger turned inward is despair. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate in the United States is at its highest level in thirty years and has risen by 24 percent since 1999. A 2015 study by two Princeton University economists found that the life expectancy for middle aged whites with a high school education or less has plummeted since 1999, while almost all other groups have seen an increase in life expectancy. This group is dying, not just from traditional diseases like heart disease or diabetes, but instead, increasingly, from suicides, drug overdoses, and liver disease related to alcoholism.
When you have no hope; when the factory closes or the mine shuts down, when the company you’ve worked for shutters and then moves overseas, when you see your wages stagnate for a decade, you get angry. And sometimes when no one hears that anger or responds to your protests, you despair. You escape into substances to numb your fears and concerns. You wonder if any one cares.
Anger turned outward is protest. So you are a young person, a millennial (those born between the early 1980’s and 2000) and you and your generation goes into debt to the tune of $1.2 trillion, all to go to college. The American Dream is now damn expensive. One out of four of you are close to, or in default, on those loans. You can’t buy a house or afford to get married or even drive a decent car because you are so deeply in debt. You lose your health insurance. You can’t get a job or work two jobs just to stay ahead of your financial black hole.
And then you wonder if anyone beyond your peer group really understands your struggles; if anyone is even listening to your generation, whose experience is so different than that of your parents and grandparents. They had dreams and made them come true. What about us? Will we ever get ahead? You wonder if anyone cares.
Lots of folks in 2016: they are mad as hell and they don’t want to take it anymore. They are angry. I may not want to hear or face that reality. May not want to try and fathom this anger. After all, I am not so angry. But as a fellow citizen, a neighbor, a friend and a person of faith, I just can’t ignore the anger anymore.