In Time of Victory, Why is the Left So Angry?

Byron York
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Posted: Apr 27, 2009 4:43 PM

These should be happy times for liberals and the Democratic Party as a whole. They control the White House and both houses of Congress, while opposition Republicans are leaderless and lost. So why do some Democrats, particularly those farther to the left, appear so angry?

If you doubt it, just watch a few minutes of MSNBC, where the recent nationwide series of "tea parties" to protest federal spending and taxes set off an angry, almost manic response. The most telling came April 16 on Keith Olbermann's "Countdown," during which the actress Janeane Garofalo, who plays an FBI computer geek on "24," denounced the tea parties as "racism straight up."

"Let's be very honest about what this is about," Garofalo said. "It's not about bashing Democrats. It's not about taxes. ... This is about hating a black man in the White House."

Garofalo linked the tea parties to what she described as a peculiar feature of the conservative brain. "The limbic brain inside a right-winger, or Republican, or conservative, or your average white-power activist -- the limbic brain is much larger in their head space than in a reasonable person," she explained. "And it is pushing against the frontal lobe. So their synapses are misfiring." (The limbic brain is the deep portion of the brain that mediates, controls and expresses emotion.)

Now it's possible Garofalo was joking; she used to do comedy. But she didn't SEEM to be joking, and her comments were consistent with a long and dishonorable history of attributing political conservatism to mental abnormality. And as she spoke about the alleged anger on the right, Garofalo herself seemed visibly angry. Why does a virtually powerless opposition apparently trouble her, Olbermann and so many others on the left?

I asked William Anderson, a friend who is a political conservative, a medical doctor and a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard. "They are angry, but I think they are also scared, and I think it's because they have a sense that their triumph is a precarious one," Anderson told me. Democrats won in 2008 in some part because of the cycles of American politics; Republicans were exhausted, and it was the other party's turn. Now, having won, they are unsure of how long victory will last.

"They see that they have a very small window of opportunity to do all the things they want," Anderson went on. "They see the window of opportunity as small because they know in their deepest hearts that the vast majority of the American people wouldn't go for all of the things they want to do." So they are frantic to do as much as possible before the opposition coalesces. And the tea parties might be the beginning of that coalescence.

Then there is the question of self-image. Watching Garofalo and Olbermann discuss the tea parties, it was impossible to avoid the sense that they saw themselves as two good people talking about many bad people. "One of the things about narcissism is that it looks like people who are just proud of themselves and smug. But in fact, narcissism is a very brittle and unstable state," Anderson told me. "People who are deeply invested in narcissism spend an awful lot of energy trying to maintain the illusion they have of themselves as being powerful and good, and they are exquisitely sensitive to anything that might prick that balloon."

Again, the tea parties could represent a threat. What if the protesters weren't racists, weren't violent, weren't mentally defective? What if their point was legitimate, or even partly legitimate? Those are questions better batted down than answered.

Finally, there is the sense of anxiety and fragility that stems from the liberals' newly won power. They control everything in government, and some fear what the responsibility of governing is doing to them.

Their president of hope and change is against a special commission to investigate Bush-era terrorist interrogations. He is escalating the war in Afghanistan. He seems determined to bail out the nation's richest bankers. For some on the left, it can be difficult to abide those actions and still maintain the image of one's self atop the moral high ground. So they lash out at the easy target presented by the tea parties.

And that is how political triumph can produce anger and unhappiness. Don't be surprised if there is much more of both in the days to come.