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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Susan Paddock
December 20, 2016
Twenty years ago Susan Tolchin, then a professor at George Washington University, published The Angry American: How Voter Rage is Changing the Nation. Sadly, Professor Tolchin died in May 2016 so she could not witness the outcome of that rage in the presidential campaign and election.
Although anger does not lead to revolution in the United States, the anger of the American body politic is similar to that in other revolutionary societies. The recent presidential electoral process did include language about a revolution, albeit not a violent one. According to Tolchin,
“The antigovernment character inherent in today’s political anger includes all of the elements on which students of revolutionary societies have long focused: the plethora of “enemies”; the need to scapegoat; the increase in terrorism and violent acts from within society; and the widespread protest movements …”
Even when Tolchin was writing in the 1990s, voter anger was upsetting the political apple cart. She predicted that political anger “will grow before it declines or becomes absorbed into the mainstream.”
Tolchin identified economic uncertainty and the cultural divide as sources of anger. She described the subjects that also drove the 2016 presidential campaign: economic issues of the wage gap, the jobs dilemma and globalism, and cultural issues of increasing hate language, the influence of the media, and what she termed “trash television.”
Her discussion of the “jobs dilemma” is particularly interesting since she was writing well before the Great Recession and the growth of the internet and widespread globalism. “The public isn’t stupid,” she wrote, emphasizing that Americans know that new jobs in this economy often pay low wages that they are working harder for less.
Tolchin called for creative leadership and community building to guide anger to a higher path.
“That means sorting out genuine issues from false ones, then following through with solutions that reflect the art of the possible … Democracies do better when they recognize anger, deal with the problems generating it, and fight to keep the outlets for expressing anger open and free from restraint.”
Reading Tolchin is akin to reading the news reports and columnists of the last two years. It reminds us that our experience in 2016 is neither new nor unusual. On the other hand, we cannot ignore this voter anger which threatens to undo many of the advances of the past 10 years. Tolchin’s analysis should motivate those of us who believe in democracy and in the importance of government to become involved beyond the boundaries of our offices, classrooms and campuses.
Perhaps as academics and practitioners of public administration, we have become so focused on our narrow professional or disciplinary issues that we have forgotten the essential ground of effective democracy: a strong community. That community has been fractured. In Washington, the geniality and civility that characterized politics 20 or 30 years ago has disintegrated into strident bipartisanship, where even social events have become politicized. In states and cities, that has also occurred. In Wisconsin, for example, Democratic senators left the state because Republicans—who controlled the legislature—refused to engage in debate. It is time to begin to rebuild that community.
Tolchin’s call for leadership should be an imperative that we use our experience and expertise to work with citizens to develop leadership, critical thinking, collaborative decision making and reasoned problem-solving. We should take what we understand about democracy, about government, about public administration, and about effective participatory processes and share it with citizens. We should find ways to communicate information about effective practices identified in research to citizens in general, not only to our peers. We should take lessons on leadership, on decision making, or even on the analysis of data to the community, through outreach programs or citizen academies. We should become active members of state and local issue groups or community groups so that our voices can be heard.
It is frustrating to read Tolchin and realize that the anger she described did indeed grow and may even have become mainstream. This does not mean we must surrender in defeat to this anger. We can choose to be like Mencken, misanthropes, and watch our country devolve into authoritarianism and conflict. We can also choose to believe in the ability of the American people to use democratic practices in this new world order and in our ability to use our reasoned and experienced voices to change to public discourse.
Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin and has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources. Susan wishes she could have interviewed Dr. Tolchin on her thoughts on the 2016 election. Email [email protected].