In the final months of last year, an angry little book unexpectedly sold 600,000 copies and reached the top of the bestseller list in France. Indignez-vous! ("Get angry") was written by 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, who marched with General Charles de Gaulle in World War II and parachuted into Nazi-occupied territory to start resistance movements. Now he's outraged: How is it, he asks, that at a time when the Western world has never been wealthier, governments are announcing that they can no longer pay for the social safety nets that have made our democracies humane places to live?
"It can only be because the power of money . . . has never been as great and selfish and shameless as it is now, with its servants in the very highest circles of government," Hessel writes. He calls on the young people of France to get angry—angry enough to do something about "the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy."
Many of the most developed nations in the world face similar circumstances: economies sunk by the greed and folly of the international finance industry, governments that have been plunged deeply into debt, and political movements touting fiscal austerity as the way to right the capsizing ships. All of the affected countries have angry citizens, many of whom have marched in their capitals and become politically active for the first time. In the process, all kinds of rifts and anxieties have been paraded through the headlines, from ethnic tension to cultural conflict to the very definition of what we expect our societies to be.
Almost anywhere you look in the media, you'll find a well-paid political writer bemoaning the supposedly unprecedented level of political anger, or sighing with relief at the first sign that the mobs are coming to their senses. A Pew survey released March 3 showed that, after the midterm elections, fewer people say they are "angry" at government, even though they are still dissatisfied. The political discourse police were ecstatic. "Maybe things are looking up for civility after all," wrote Dallas Morning News blogger Clayton McKleskey. New York Times columnist Charles Blow inveighed, "Anger is too exhausting an emotion to sustain." There seems to be an elite bias against people willing to make their voice heard. One columnist referred to the union protests in Wisconsin as "hyperpartisan hysteria" and "politics being treated as apocalypse." Back in 2006, Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote a particularly fanciful bit of nostalgia that included the line, "There was a time when friendship and simple human compassion were far more powerful than any political differences."
I, too, have written about the dangers of a political climate where no one can even agree on the facts. But there's something pernicious about this op-ed page elation over everyone calming down when, in fact, nothing has happened that should allay the average American's alarm and outrage. There's no reason to be reassured. Stéphane Hessel has it right: we're not nearly angry enough.
I am not talking about partisan bomb-throwing, about blaming the opposing party, about trying to catch your enemies on tape saying something that sounds damning, or about creating an alternate reality of grievance and resentment. I'm talking about bona fide moral outrage against the specific individuals and entities that have deliberately undermined the integrity of our democracy for their own gain. There's no need to embellish; the facts are scandalous enough:
Wall Street isn't fixed. Over the past decade the Securities and Exchange Commission, the main agency that oversees Wall Street and prosecutes financial crimes, has been paralyzed by inaction and corporate influence. Whistle-blowers were ignored, investigators who got too close to discovering misdeeds at the gigantic banks were fired. It often appears the government has all but given up on the very idea that Wall Street must be made to follow the law. Not one person from the finance industry went to jail for what happened in 2008, even though many of them intentionally perpetuated the scheme that cratered the world economy. They still don't believe they did anything wrong, and they're back to making record profits and paying their enormous bonuses to their CEOs. President Obama's financial reform law will attempt to close some of the most gaping loopholes in the system, but the power of banks to dictate their own oversight and play risky games that jeopardize the whole country lives on.