Defusing the Politics of Anger

Productive activism starts with learning how to listen.

  • George Wallace
    In learning what leaders whom you disagree with communicate, you can gain insights into the methods of effective communication.
    Photo by Flickr/EliPousson

  • George Wallace

In the 1968 presidential election, civil rights were a significant issue. However, while the far left was fractured, running multiple candidates, the far right was coalescing around one man, former Alabama governor George Wallace. Although he had been a Democrat, he ran as an independent candidate and as the nation’s foremost advocate for racial segregation. He had personally barred the path of two black students attempting to register at the University of Alabama in 1963. But he was also seen as a populist, supporting increased social security and Medicare benefits, while attacking hippies for not working and liberals for being soft on crime. In the spring of my junior year of college, I heard that Wallace was going to give a campaign speech in Toledo, Ohio, less than a half hour from the town of Bowling Green. I talked a few friends into joining me at his rally. I did not go to protest; that would have been futile, given the audience’s orientation. Instead, I wanted to understand what Wallace’s attraction was and to see how he interacted with his audience. Not only would I then better understand his arguments, but I would also see how he delivered his message.

We walked into a packed Toledo high school gym; the bleachers were filled with working-class people. We found ourselves sitting high above the podium with a perfect bird’s-eye view of the audience. These were familiar folks—the kind I had grown up with. Not a suit or tie among them. The men sported trim haircuts and neat casual clothing. The women were dressed modestly: no short skirts or jeans. This was not a college-age crowd.

I thought their ordinary attire belied a simmering rage within them. The crowd stamped their feet like a marching band in anticipation of Wallace’s arrival. It grew louder with time. They had more passion than I had witnessed at antiwar rallies.

When Wallace finally appeared, everyone rose and clapped with a mighty roar. As if he were a maestro in front of an orchestra, he stepped up to the podium and proceeded to whip them into an ever-higher pitch of anger at everything that was wrong with this country, from pampered college students rioting in the streets to black welfare dads refusing to work. Women nodded and men shouted in agreement when Wallace said that rich liberal elites controlled both the Democratic and Republican Parties. He repeated his famous line, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democrat and Republican Parties.” I had heard that sentiment at home and, somewhat ironically, at antiwar rallies. He had touched on a widely shared belief: citizens had no control over their own government.

Looking down, I noticed a dozen black students stood on the main floor right below Wallace’s podium, vociferously objecting to his racist remarks. Wallace snarled and pointed to them, as if they were ready-made props to focus the white crowd’s hate. United against a common enemy, the audience catapulted insults down onto them. I feared for their safety, but they weren’t physically harmed. Wallace needed them as a foil, not as victims.

Although neither a handsome Kennedy nor an erudite McCarthy, Wallace cut a swath through the Democrats’ core of blue-collar voters. That evening I felt the heat of their resentment toward those who didn’t have to work as hard as they did to make a living. Wallace would jab his finger at the audience, as if poking them, and point out that black people, college students, and liberals were receiving benefits that they would never receive. He was a master at reading the crowd and reflecting their anger. His ability reminded me of something Leon Trotsky wrote: “An unexcelled ability to detect the mood of the masses was Lenin’s great power.” Apparently it is an ability unencumbered by ideology. Even though Wallace did not win, his message had resonated with working families— the very ones that the left was trying to attract.

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