In 336 BC Alexander the Great led a strident conquest of Asia Minor and was closing in on the retreating armies of King Darius III. In the waning twilight of the campaign the great Persian leader and general was ambushed by skirmishers on the perimeter of Alexander’s main ground army. Bessus, a kinsman of Alexander, had Darius thrown into an Ox cart, beaten and slain in a fashion undeserving of a common thief. Upon discovering Darius’ savaged and lifeless body, Alexander knelt and wept for his fallen enemy he had chased across Anatolia. He then had Darius’s body sent back to Persepolis, gave him a magnificent funeral and ordered that he be buried, like all his royal predecessors, in the royal tombs. Alexander would later have Bessus hunted down, drawn and quartered.
Anger alone cannot explain the sordid comments directed at recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. While more polished remarks from elected leaders on both sides recognized a sort of reverence for the incredible journey undertaken by a man born of modest beginnings, these benedictions were drowned out by a larger multitude of hate and contempt. The more interminable of these voices seemed to ignore accomplishment and balance in the one branch of government that maintains approval rating outside of the low 20s, narrowly focusing instead on perceived slights of dissent from a man who stood in the way of their relative definition of progress.
The latest exit polls out of New Hampshire tell it all in one modus operandi of voter behavior; fury at the established order. Republican primary goers have all but given up on the political process with 88% dissatisfied or angry with the federal government. This largest discrepancy was amongst Trump voters where 62% felt the next President should be from outside the establishment. Many Trump voters (36%) had never voted in a primary and nearly half of Republican primary voters indicated feeling betrayed by actual Republicans in Washington.
On the flipside, 78% were first time voters for Sanders – 70% say life for the next generation of Americans will be worse than that of today. A whopping 61% overall are angry or dissatisfied, even in the midst of a democratic president who has taken up the flag of income inequality. Furthermore 84% of Sanders voters say they feel betrayed specifically by democrat politicians.
Enter the aggrieved. See, simple anger at Washington doesn’t suffice to explain the dynamic of what is happening. Congressional approval has been historically low for nearly a decade, and anger in general toward government has actually dipped a few percentage points according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll. What is happening here is huge in scale and acute in nature. Voters are infuriated and feel betrayed at the lack of effort and results from people they voted into power to fix the conditions that spurned the original anger. Hell hath no fury as a voter scorned.
The psychology is splendidly simple. Political trust versus cynicism further influences the formation of grievances. Perceived disparities will not turn into discontent if people trust responsible actors. The voters at Trump rallies are not as apolitically indifferent as one may think. Most are the very people who were emotionally invested in the Republican victories of 2010 and 2014. The fact that 36% entered the fray as virgin primary voters furthers the idea that ordinary people do not view the partisan establishment as responsible actors. Bernie Supporters share a similar mentality but for different reason – they had long soured on the political process as a way to bring about equality of outcome, then came Obama. They were emotionally invested in Obama’s plea to transform America; to them he hasn’t done enough and the “change” has failed to outweigh the hope.
In collective action, aggrieved participants experience more out-group directed anger and contempt than self-directed positive affect. Yet anger is so cliché. Observers don’t give enough credit to the crotchety community. The more embedded people are, the more efficacious they feel and the more they protest. When social action materializes in political form it is more so motivated by perceived damages from personal relationships than non-personal ones.
In other words, would you be angrier if your best friend slept with your wife or husband as opposed to some random stranger? Would you desire greater punishment if your financial advisor stole money from you as opposed to an unknown pickpocket? When the chips are down, people put unprecedented faith in those that say they can fix the problem. Subsequently when those actors fail, that unprecedented faith lost in the equation leaves a void that cannot be filled with anger alone.
When leaving a tumultuous relationship the aggrieved partner, once bitten twice shy, often seeks out a new love interest with opposite qualities and personality traits. Unfortunately some long held attractive characteristics fall to the wayside as the pain from the latest breakup weighs heavy on the heart. Donald Trump may not have the policy skill of McCain or Romney, but he sure as hell will tell that moderator where to stick her microphone before she can point out his former loyalties to democrat candidates. Bernie Sanders may not have the political maneuvering of Obama, but he is not afraid to drop the colloquial “Transform America” in favor of “Political Revolution.” Quite frankly, neither have the constitutional authority or the votes to do half of the things they have promised once in office. They both represent rampant debt spending, prolific finger pointing (and wagging) while focusing anger on phantom scapegoats such as immigrants and investment bankers.
What I hear from voters more and more these days is the following: Republican leadership gave us McCain and Romney, and we lost. We helped the party gain majorities in the House and Senate only to become ineffective in opposing Obama. On the left, progressive voters bent over backwards to get Obama elected twice; and to show for their labors? – Record inequality, corporate profits and big banks have doubled market share since when their egalitarian standard bearer took office.
Sadly, there are some things that cannot be achieved in our political system in such short order without resorting to tyranny. Constitutional principle and popular support must coalesce; and perhaps the zeal of movements and politicians overextend their reach. Politics is a dirty, soul wrenching affair in which the actors quickly go from preaching at the pulpit to digging in the collection plate. Compromise violates principle, but is sometimes necessary to create a greater longtime good. No retreat, no surrender is a principle Alexander may have endorsed in war, but is not a practical notion by responsible actors in times of peace.
At the siege of Troy, Achilles sought out Hector in battle believing he had purposefully murdered his bother. It was actually his brother s fault, and Hector had acted honorably throughout a war that probably shouldn’t have been fought in the first place. Aggrieved, Achilles slayed Hector and reduced himself to the vile desecration of the dead; dragging Hector’s lifeless body from his chariot the length of the battlefield. It is not simple anger that stirs men to drag the departed through the mud.