Our ever-reasonable president needs a bit more spite.

How your unconscious mind shapes you.
Dec. 7 2010 7:18 PM

No, You Can't

Our ever-reasonable president needs a bit more spite.

Dinesh D'Souza's new book about President Obama is wrong in many ways. But its biggest error may be its premise.

The title of the book, The Roots of Obama's Rage, makes as much sense as "The Roots of the Pope's Atheism," or "The Causes of Shakespeare's Illiteracy."

America wants to know not why Obama is so angry, but why Obama seems incapable of anger. Recent commentary has questioned not only whether Obama experiences ordinary emotions, but whether he is 1) a milquetoast, 2) an embarrassment, or 3) really a black man.

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The notion of Obama as an angry black man in disguise, peddled during the 2008 election, has been thoroughly debunked. Many liberals believe Obama does not throw elbows because he does not want to jeopardize his tenuous hold on white voters. This may be true, but would it really upset white voters if the president showed anger at a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

I think the primary reason the president never gets angry in public is that he does not believe anger is productive. Obama is a practical man. His foundational rock is not ideological but affective: He is reasonable  and wants to be seen as reasonable. Hence his plea: "Can't we disagree without being disagreeable?"

Reasonable people don't harm common interests. "I'm not willing to let working families across this country become collateral damage for political warfare here in Washington," Obama said this week as he gave up a campaign promise not to extend tax cuts for the wealthy, in exchange for extended unemployment benefits.

Obama represents a widespread pattern among liberals. Talk-radio experiments featuring left-wing ranters fail, even as there is insatiable appetite for right-wing fulmination. Given a choice between compromise and absolutism, reasonable people seek the middle ground. This is why many commentators see the Democratic Party as the party of compromise.

This is a grown-up attitude. If your neighbors blast loud music at 2 a.m., it may feel right—but isn't reasonable—to aim giant speakers at their house and blast them out of bed at 4 a.m.

When scientists study different societies, groups with a higher percentage of reasonable people come out ahead of groups that have fewer reasonable people. But here's the curious thing: Really successful societies always include people who sometimes act in angry, vindictive, and spiteful ways.

These people are not aberrations or cautionary signposts. They are essential. Get rid of them, and the group will function less well.

Take a common traffic scenario. Police cordon off a lane for road construction. They post signs a mile ahead of the roadblock telling drivers to merge into the remaining lane. The reasonable thing is to merge as quickly as possible. But this creates free passage in the blocked lane, and selfish drivers take advantage of the situation. They zip ahead of everyone else using the blocked lane. This makes the jam worse for everyone, because the sneaky cars merge close to the roadblock.

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