In the early part of this year, Aaron Lewis and Jeffrey Steele, both country musicians, spent many hours in Mr. Lewis’ house in Nashville trying to create a song for their fans. The song was not going well.
Mr. Steele is a Nashville veteran. Although they know the basics of writing songs that are about sweet country life and summertime, they don’t like to be forced to use them. They were both conservatives and wanted to write a song that made them feel like they belonged in a group of people who shared similar opinions. It was difficult to write one.
So Steele searched for something he had written in his phone. This was “Am I The Only One?” and it is an open half-vent, half lament about America’s changing times.
Americans feel angry. But what do they do with this anger? Talk to Americans from all political parties about how they channel their anger in productive or creative ways.
The song’s subject is “that feeling that you are the only person here tonight watching your TV and feeling like everything is crumbling around you,” Mr. Steele says, who is a conservative Christian. “[Mr. Lewis] lit up on it.”
Released this July, “Am I the Only One?” debuted atop country charts, though some outlets wouldn’t play it due to the edgy right-wing lyrics. The songwriters interpret sales – just under 60,000 in its first week – as a sign that other people share a sense of frustration. Although not all may be in agreement with Steele’s politics, it is clear that Mr. Steele has a point. The public is not the only one angry.
On the left, parts of the public are equally outraged about what they also see as America’s moral drift: They point to a lack of care for one’s neighbor in a public health emergency, the GOP embrace of “the big lie” about the 2020 election, and disregard for the planet amid a climate crisis.
Take a panorama of the country in 2021. The FBI reports an increase in violent crime. The Federal Aviation Administration is recording higher-than-ever numbers of unruly passengers. This month, Attorney General Merrick Garland released a memo on threats of violence against school board members. The year began with the Capitol riot, which was marred by violent protests and sometimes rioting. It’s an image of an angry country, supported by polling. In early September, almost 3 in 4 respondents told CNN that they felt at least somewhat angry at “the way things are going in the country today.” In January, 54% of participants in a CBS News poll said that the “biggest threat to America’s way of life” was “other people in America” – not economic or foreign threats or natural disasters. This is not the first time that anger has dominated American life – it’s a nation built on revolution. Anger can be a complex emotion. It can unify and divide. It solves social problems, and also creates them. This led to the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.
But as Americans feel frustrated, from the failed withdrawal in Afghanistan to the lingering pandemic here at home, the pressure to deal with it all increases. While Americans may be different in their anger, the basic need to communicate it and not target others is the same.
“It is pure frustration,” states Mr. Steele.
“It’s sheer frustration,” says Mr. Steele.
Jeffrey Steele performs at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Dinner and Induction Ceremony at the Music City Center on Oct. 11, 2015, in Tennessee.
American tradition turned partisan warfare
Anger is an American tradition. It was used by the country’s founding fathers to inspire ambivalent colonists against Britain. All of the country’s major social movements, from civil rights to suffrage and abolition, were united by a feeling of righteous anger. America’s Civil War resulted in large part from regional animosity. Jonathan Edwards delivered America’s greatest sermon: “Sinners In the Hands Of An Angry God But the rate of anger has increased in recent years. The country is becoming more divided due to partisan sorting. This refers to the tendency for voters not only interact with people who are in their camp but also with others. It is often reinforced by social media, cable news and talk radio. It’s now easier than ever to become angry, and easier for political leaders to stoke that anger, says Steven Webster, assistant professor of political science at Indiana University and author of “American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics.”
That cascade “moves us outside a competition of ideas and into the realm of tribal warfare – it’s us against them and my loss is going to lead to some unfortunate consequence for the health of the country,” he says.
Anger is a powerful tool for speech, and it has its place in politics. This has been the case since Plato’s argument in the Agora. Myisha Cherry is the author of “The Case for Rage”, and professor of philosophy at University of California Riverside. She says that emotion can be used to express and reflect. People are more inclined to challenge the status quo when they feel strongly, such as by protesting police brutality.
Or storming the Capitol, which is an extreme case of misdirected, unchecked anger and a sign of its dangers, Professor Cherry says. David Rosmarin (assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School) says that anger is a means to show fear. He says that anger activates the fight or flight response and people are able to follow their instincts. This makes people vulnerable and in extreme cases dangerous.
“Is it good anger or bad anger?”
David Grimmett, an attorney in Tennessee’s Williamson County, saw as much at a school board meeting this August.
Almost 2,500 people showed up to debate a school mask mandate. It was Mr. Grimmett who opposed it. However, he spoke in a tone that differed from those who agreed. Outside anti-mask chants were so loud that he could see them through the walls of his building. Following the meeting, the board was subject to verbal threats and attacks. This led to the Department of Justice publishing a memo about the danger of violence against teachers and school boards.
” At the meeting, there were some very intelligent, methodical and good speakers. Then, other people attacked the board members,” said Mr. Grimmett. “That’s the problem: when it comes out as an attack versus a public discourse or disagreement.”
The mask mandate eventually passed. Because he understood both sides of the coin, Mr. Grimmett was able to accept his loss. He understands that parents have the right to make decisions for their own children. He says that it’s an emotional discussion and can understand parents getting angry, up to a point.
“It all comes down to whether the anger is good or bad,” states Mr. Grimmett. Do we think people hear us when we’re angry in these situations? You are allowed to feel angry. If you bottle it up, it can just explode.”
“Driven by what’s supposed to be”
A year earlier and hundreds of miles away, residents of Richmond, Virginia, showed what happens when people repress their anger too long. Many long-time residents of Richmond were unhappy with their city’s record regarding race and the Confederacy. Then came the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and, locally, Marcus David Peters, killed by police during a mental health crisis. It was a chaotic scene.
Photojournalist Regina Boone of the historically Black Richmond Free Press was watching. At one point she spent 60 straight days photographing protests around the city. Her parents founded the RFP in the early 1990s, and Ms. Boone has been in and out of Richmond for 30 years. She knew exactly what was being done by residents when the protests began.
“It is anger but it’s anger driven by what’s supposed be,” Ms. Boone.
As people shared their grief during the marches, Ms. Boone experienced a feeling of community that was sometimes difficult to find in a rapidly changing city. It felt like a festival at times, she said. People shared their stories about past traumas. People wore T-shirts, and they marched together. People marched together and printed T-shirts.
The anger was meant to “correct the wrongs and to right the wrongs,” according to Ms. Boone.
“It’s all about empathy”
One of the people Ms. Boone found was Hamilton Glass, an artist with frustrations of his own last year.
Mr. Glass was unable to understand the reason so many people did not care about police brutality when protests started. He watched Derek Chauvin kneel down on George Floyd’s neck and he couldn’t believe it. He says, “I, in general, as a Black male, have seen myself, and my friends, in conditions like this.” “I just felt like we should have been outraged a lot sooner.”
There was an understanding gap, he says, one that made more sense after he spoke with a friend who expressed how George Floyd’s murder made issues of police brutality so clear. He says that the conversation with his friend “kinda lit a fire in me to take action.” Glass.
He created the Mending Walls Project which brought together artists from Richmond with different backgrounds. They would create and paint a wall on social justice. Glass says, “The goal was to inspire empathy across the entire city.”
Since then, he and his partners have finished more than 20 murals, recorded podcasts, filmed a documentary, and spoken to teachers and artists from other cities who want to join. Some artists had difficult partnerships. This was exactly the point Mr. Glass said. Americans require a method to deal with strong emotions that does not force them apart.
Mr. Glass’ politics don’t resemble those of Mr. Steele the country singer. Their projects demonstrate an attempt to vent anger in ways that build, not corrode, community.
These kinds of efforts have a lot to offer, according to Mr. Glass.
Healing through art is what he calls it. It’s about empathy .”