We live in an “age of anger,” writes Pankaj Mishra, as a burning resentment of the old order and the elites who run it dominate politics around the world. His new book with that title focuses on young terrorists and vengeful right-wing nationalists. But his phrase also fits the mood of the broad American left, particularly since Donald Trump’s election and the first six months of his presidency.
There is, of course, a great deal to be angry about. From healthcare to the environment to immigration to labor, every major act by Trump’s administration and its Republican enablers has been profoundly inhumane and shot through with lies. Unless the Russia scandal blows their house down, they will likely continue on the same path into 2018 and perhaps beyond.
But rage, by itself, will neither defeat this outrageous government nor get us closer to achieving the better society we want. During the late 1960s, leftists stoked fury at the Vietnam War but ended up with Richard Nixon as president. More recently, Occupy targeted the greedy 1 percent, and Black Lives Matter staged loud, righteous protests against police killings of unarmed African Americans. But Trump’s clever manipulation of the anger of key groups of white voters landed him in the White House.
How the left builds on mass ire towards the ruling right will determine whether that emotion dissipates or grows into an articulate vision and a determined approach to achieving it. For decades, conservatives have left no doubt what they stand for: a huge military, “traditional” values, and lower taxes to starve domestic programs. The left’s alternative is murkier and diffuse. We know what we don’t like about capitalism, about sexism and racism, war and climate change. But we have yet to come up with a coherent and forceful alternative, one that speaks to the grievances and desires of a majority of Americans.
Nor do we all agree about what kind of political strategy to follow. Some leftists cleave to the Democrats, others dream of third parties. We know that institutions matter. But how to revive unions, get the welter of NGOs to cooperate with one another, and train a new generation of organizers?
Perhaps we can learn from Tony Navarrete, the thirty-one-year-old son of Mexican immigrants, from Phoenix, who got elected to the Arizona legislature last year on a wave of outrage against crackdowns by local authorities. He told the New York Times that sheriff’s deputies routinely raided the homes of his neighbors, seeking anyone who might be in the country without documents. “That fueled my anger,” said Navarrete. “But I couldn’t be angry. I really needed to find a way to build power and to make change.”