Many people recognize how ‘polarized’ America has become. Perhaps you’ve read about that in my previous columns here in the SAM Magazine.

On the one hand, it’s true. Was­hing­ton’s po­li­ti­ci­ans are so di­vi­ded that ne­ar­ly not­hing gets done in the U.S. Cong­ress. On the ot­her hand, di­sag­ree­ments in Ame­ri­cans’ po­li­ti­cal views are not new.  Dif­fe­ren­ces that are no­wa­da­ys ro­adb­locks have exis­ted for de­ca­des. So, what’s chan­ged?

Mean streets of America

Fin­land has re­mai­ned con­sis­tent­ly num­ber one in hap­pi­ness for se­ven ye­ars in a row while the Uni­ted Sta­tes has drop­ped out of even the top twen­ty. That’s a big dif­fe­ren­ce and a ma­jor chan­ge. Ac­cor­ding to New York Ti­mes co­lum­nist and aut­hor Da­vid Brooks, as well as many ot­hers, the un­der­lying exp­la­na­ti­on is that Ame­ri­cans are ang­rier, and Ame­ri­ca has got­ten me­a­ner. 

Po­li­ti­cal dis­cour­se is less ci­vil. De­ba­tes have be­co­me “If that’s what they say, I will say the exact op­po­si­te”.  It’s not about the is­su­es, it’s about win­ning and scre­wing the ot­her side. But it’s not on­ly po­li­tics that’s got­ten nas­ty. Dai­ly life in Ame­ri­ca is less kind than it used to be.

Statistics show it’s true

The num­bers prove how tough it is. Dep­res­si­on, ad­dic­ti­on, sui­ci­de, and ot­her men­tal he­alth cri­ses are es­ca­la­ting ex­po­nen­ti­al­ly.  Less than half of Ame­ri­cans give to cha­ri­ty even though more than two-thirds did in the past. Ci­vic groups and churc­hes are dis­sol­ving. Lar­ge emp­lo­yers un­der­mi­ne uni­ons. Nur­ses, te­ac­hers, po­li­ce, and fi­re­figh­ters are chan­ging ca­reers be­cau­se of vi­o­len­ce against them.

De­ve­lop­ments among yo­ung Ame­ri­cans are dis­cou­ra­ging. Col­le­ge stu­dents fa­vor bu­si­ness and en­ter­tain­ment cour­ses over so­ci­al scien­ces, hu­ma­ni­ties, and hard scien­ces.  In 1967, 85% of them said that they were “strong­ly mo­ti­va­ted to de­ve­lop a me­a­ning­ful phi­lo­sop­hy of life.”  By 2015, 80% said mo­ney is their pri­ma­ry goal. So­ci­al me­dia traps them in­to bro­ad­cas­ting inac­cu­ra­te vir­tu­al port­ra­yals of their li­ves for the tem­po­ra­ry and tran­sac­ti­o­nal use of ot­hers to ‘like’ their sham per­so­na in cy­bers­pa­ce, re­gard­less of how mean that’s be­co­me. 

Ot­her me­a­su­res of an­ger are seen in sta­tis­tics about dist­rust. They show that Ame­ri­cans have lost trust in their po­li­ti­cal ins­ti­tu­ti­ons, es­pe­ci­al­ly their go­vern­ment in Was­hing­ton. Un­surp­ri­sing­ly, Ame­ri­cans have al­so lost trust in each ot­her. Two ge­ne­ra­ti­ons ago, in re­se­arch that as­ked pe­op­le: “Do you trust the pe­op­le around you?” 60% said they were ge­ne­ral­ly trust­wort­hy. That’s down to 30% and even lo­wer among yo­un­ger pe­op­le. 

Ang­ry and dist­rust­ful Ame­ri­cans are the new nor­mal. It seems like that’s a bad thing, but is it?

Can’t we all just get along?

A ty­pi­cal res­pon­se is to ur­ge eve­ry­o­ne to chill out and to choo­se words that are not so harsh. Bil­l­bo­ards and hand­ma­de signs say ‘Be Kind’ and ‘Em­pat­hy’.  Those pla­ti­tu­des in­fu­ri­a­te me. Not eve­ryt­hing can be fi­xed by tel­ling eve­ry­o­ne to play nice. Many Ame­ri­cans are ful­ly jus­ti­fied in their an­ger and in some of their me­an­ness too, no mat­ter how po­la­ri­zing it may be.  For examp­le:

When yo­ur boss’s sa­la­ry is 5 or 10 ti­mes more than yo­urs and the com­pa­ny pays its CEO 1000 ti­mes more than emp­lo­yees who do the real work, no one should be told to shut up and sit down or be fi­red. They should be li­vid.

When wo­men are de­nied the op­por­tu­ni­ty to ter­mi­na­te preg­nan­cies with le­gal abor­ti­ons (even when they are preg­nant as the re­sult of rape by a stran­ger) there’s no re­qui­re­ment that they re­main calm and po­li­te. They can be as fu­ri­ous as they feel.

When lo­cal and state go­vern­ments take away their rights to vote and then deny per­mits for ci­ti­zens to pro­test be­cau­se of noi­se rest­ric­ti­ons, a pro­per res­pon­se is ve­he­ment and noi­sy out­ra­ge.

When the pro-gun lob­by blocks any me­a­ning­ful go­vern­ment res­pon­se to mass shoo­tings in schools, res­tau­rants, and gro­ce­ry sto­res, it’s ri­di­cu­lous to comp­lain that vic­tims’ fa­mi­lies sound so ira­te when they de­mand more ac­ti­on than pra­yers.

These are ge­nui­ne sce­na­ri­os in the dai­ly li­ves of Ame­ri­cans. They feel ang­ry and sound fu­ri­ous for very good re­a­sons. As Har­vard pro­fes­sor Ro­bert Put­nam said about dist­rust, Ame­ri­cans are dist­rust­ful of the pe­op­le around them be­cau­se pe­op­le around them have been unt­rust­wort­hy.  It’s not about their per­cep­ti­on; it’s about re­a­li­ty. The an­ger that Ame­ri­cans feel is real and much of it is ap­p­rop­ri­a­te.

Anger in America won’t vanish by asking Americans to be nicer…and it shouldn’t

It re­qui­res real ins­ti­tu­ti­o­nal chan­ges ins­te­ad. The vast gaps in Ame­ri­ca’s we­alth must be re­du­ced by a tax sys­tem that no lon­ger fa­vors the ult­ra-rich. Ci­vil rights need to be rein­for­ced to pro­tect ra­ci­al mi­no­ri­ties, wo­men, the poor, and the wor­king class rat­her than dis­mant­led to si­len­ce their voi­ces.

Re­li­gi­ous and eth­nic dif­fe­ren­ces must not be ig­no­red by court de­ci­si­ons that im­po­se white men’s mo­ra­li­ty clo­a­ked in sa­ni­ti­zed exp­la­na­ti­ons of his­to­ry that ne­ver exis­ted.  Jud­ges who rule with those bi­a­ses must be iden­ti­fied, ex­po­sed, and rep­la­ced. Ab­surd­ly one-si­ded pro-gun inf­lu­en­ce over po­li­ti­ci­ans must be eli­mi­na­ted. The list goes on.

Don’t tell me or any­o­ne el­se to be nice and to si­lent­ly ig­no­re cir­cums­tan­ces that need to chan­ge.  Jus­ti­fi­ab­le an­ger is good and ne­ces­sa­ry.  Dis­com­fort is a pre­re­qui­si­te for chan­ge. It’s a strong for­ce to trans­form Ame­ri­ca in­to the na­ti­on it was cre­a­ted to be. It’s not wrong to be ang­ry when it’s the right thing to do.

* * *

Tom A. Lip­po is a Fin­nish-spe­a­king Ame­ri­can la­wy­er. Edu­ca­ted at Ya­le, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Jy­väs­ky­lä and Stan­ford Law School, he is the foun­der of FACT LAW, an in­ter­na­ti­o­nal law firm es­tab­lis­hed in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with of­fi­ces in both Fin­land and the Uni­ted Sta­tes. Tom has been a lawy­er in Was­hing­ton, DC ba­sed on Ca­pi­tol Hill for over 40 ye­ars.