Maybe you can catch more flies with vinegar.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Elizabeth Warren Is Angry. She Has a Point.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Warren Buffett thinks Senator Elizabeth Warren would be more effective if she were less angry. "Well, I think she would do better if she was less angry and demonized less," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "I believe in ‘hate the sin and love the sinner.'"

It's a sentiment that I share not just about Warren, but about a wide range of politicians. I am driven nuts by angry politicians who spend their time telling voters that there's a secret cabal of people -- not good people like you, but strange, mean people -- who live somewhere else and are busy destroying the Republic to serve their own nefarious ends. I would like very much for Warren Buffett to be right that Elizabeth Warren would do better if she were less obstreperous. Unfortunately, I don't think he is.

Anger is an evolutionary strategy that helps us deal with threats. It focuses our mind on the target, suppresses our fear and drives us to attack. It's also a pretty powerful means for getting what we want from other people; I think most of us understand, somewhere in the back of our minds, that there is sometimes a strategic component to even our most righteous rage, because humans don't like having other humans mad at them, and they will often give you what you want just to make the anger stop. And of course it's a powerful way to get a group to do what you want: Get enough of the group angry, and their collective fury will sweep aside small considerations such as fear, self-interest or even good sense.

Warren has a pretty clear agenda for American society, and she thinks that the best way to get that agenda enacted is to stir anger in the hearts of voters who see a lot of things gone wrong and figure that, well, someone must have done it to them, probably those folks over there who don't seem to be suffering as much as the rest of us. I think her agenda is oversimplified paternalism combined with a touching naivete about the effects of regulation, but on tactics, I think she's probably mostly right. A politician who attempted to conduct a nuanced conversation about the financial crisis and its aftermath, or about the problems of lending money to financially marginal people with poor credit, would undoubtedly educate the the 40 people who showed up to their think-tank panel. But that politician would not get elected, and they certainly would not become a powerful force on Capitol Hill.

We want simple narratives, ones with clear villains and heroes and an obvious moral. We want clear solutions that can be described in no more than one minute, just right for a sound bite on the evening news. We want someone to hate, along with the reassurance that once those people are removed or controlled, all will be right with the world. And we happily pull the lever in the ballot box for the people who will deliver these things.

Unfortunately, the universe is not here to please us, and the situations with which it confronts us are rarely amenable to the kind of one-step solutions that work so well in fairy tales. But just as many of us never quite get over believing in magic, we are rarely daunted by the repeated failure of all the previous politicians to slay their self-appointed dragons. This time it really is simple and obvious, and if we just click our heels three times, we can make the bad witches go away.

Which is not to say that Warren's anger is strategic; I think she sincerely believes that she's fighting some fearsome dragons. I think politics selects for people who see the world in black and white, then rage at all the darkness. I wish that weren't the case, of course. But if you want to change it, don't look to the politicians -- look to the voters who elect them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net