Uses for Anger in Making a Better World

This article by CCLP senior fellow Matthew Dowd was originally published in the Huffington Post.

Is anger a bad thing? What should we do if a person is angry or a large group of voters is angry and frustrated? Call that person names, tell them they shouldn’t be angry, ignore it?

Observing the last few weeks, especially the rise of Donald Trump, and to some degree Sen. Bernie Sanders, made me cognizant of the brewing anger and distrust that exists in America today. And made me pause and wonder about the questions posed above, and what to do with the anger and distrust that resides in a large part of the American public whether it be Republican, Democrat or independent. This anger is about race, inequalities at many levels, being forgotten, war, loss of opportunity and hope, or being lied to too many times.

Anger isn’t bad in and of itself. It is just a feeling, not a moral position. Jesus was angry as He turned the tables over in the temple. Gandhi was angry at injustice around the world and especially in India. Martin Luther King Jr. was angry about the unfulfilled promise of America. The question becomes what to do with that anger in ourselves, and how to respond to anger in others.

There are really three options to choose from as regards our own or someone else’s anger. As with all things in politics, it plays out always in the lessons we learn in relationships. Politics is nothing but a broader and more public manifestation of what we learn in private and the intimate circles of our life. For personal and political, there are three ways we can approach anger in our relationships and deal with it.

One, we can ignore the anger that bubbles up in ourselves or another and not try to understand it. We can look at it as crazy (Sen. John McCain’s philosophy in calling Trump supporters “crazies” or what some people do in relationships by “gaslighting” others), and attempt to disregard it as inappropriate or wrong. This basically puts us in a place of denial, and is definitely not a path for success of our own growth or leading others. By ignoring, downplaying, denying or not understanding the anger this leads us on a movement towards disintegration or disconnection from our own hearts or the heart of another. Many partisans have made this mistake, as well as many in the media, by not trying to understand this anger and give it some validity. They underestimate the undercurrent of frustration and anger that exists in our country today.

The second choice of dealing with anger is to tap into its incredible force, but only use it as a plaything for our amusement or to get what we want. This way is just venting this anger outward in ways that are destructive or don’t bring us closer to the life we want to live or the kind of country we want to live in. In this mode, anger is used to make a bad situation worse, or it appeals to our darker angels, and divides rather than unites. In this place we seek to find enemies at whom to vent our anger — pointing fingers and casting blame. We have had many political figures in our history who did this and weren’t helpful for our country. Donald Trump falls into this category of using anger destructively for his benefit, rather than constructively for the country’s benefit.

And the third option, which is where leaders fall — whether in our intimate circles or in the country as a whole — is understanding someone’s anger, meeting them there, and then channeling that anger in a constructive manner. By leading in the midst of anger in a positive way is where all reform and change has come from. This route is by connecting with an angry person or an angry group so they feel understood, and then appealing to their better angels and using that anger for good. The abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, the movement surrounding the Special Olympics, peace movements, and the American Revolution all had anger as a big component of the demand for change and assistance for a neglected group of people. This anger moved towards a positive outcome with the help of leaders who understood its power in achieving good. And in the case of our founding fathers and mothers, instead of destroying a country they built a new one the world had never seen before based on principles of liberty, freedom, and compassion.

If you want to be successful as a leader today in your homes or at the White House, you must come to terms with this anger and figure out ways to move it in a direction of good. Leadership is about understanding the place many are at today, and figuring out a way to achieve a higher and laudable purpose. Don’t deny the anger, name-call people who are angry as crazy, play with anger for your own gain, make the situation worse by fomenting anger. Be a leader, and accept that anger, and then use it as a creative powerful instrument in doing good in this world. And like the peace movements, use anger to stop wars, and not start them.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.