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Bush-contempt, Kerry-scorn: Is it 'hate thought'?

Intense anger satisfies a lust for absolute certainty, but it erodes the possibility of political compromise

By Gary Alan Fine / October 18, 2004



CHICAGO

'Mommy why do you hate the president?" Such questions from the mouths of babes should torment progressives who find themselves angered at the very sight of our commander in chief.

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How does one respond?

Some weeks ago I wrote a commentary in a major newspaper that asked Americans to consider their hatred for political leaders, a column addressed both to conservatives and liberals. I received numerous responses, justifying the writers' own particular and well-considered animosity, embracing their distaste while dismissing that of opponents.

George Bush, I was told, is an ignorant sadist; Bill Clinton is a congenital liar and rapist. Lately we have been informed that John Kerry is a war criminal, a coward, and a traitor. My correspondents cited chapter and verse to support their tough claims. In a society in which "hate crimes" are considered deserving of opprobrium, many partisans were pleased to admit their own hate-thought crimes. It became clear that many of these writers never discussed politics with anyone on "the other side."

As I read these screeds, I began to wonder what these aggressively articulate people tell their children about American politics. Are Bush-hatred, Clinton-disgust, and Kerry-scorn dinner-table conversation? Are children inculcated into political loathing at an early age - or are they shielded until they come of age? What effects will this roiling political emotion have on the next generation?

When I was young, my parents insisted that I show respect for the president, whomever he was and whichever party he represented. He was the president of all Americans, and we collectively selected him. My parents were not alone.

The hatred that has spewed across the land - first in conservative "red" territory under Mr. Clinton, then in liberal "blue" regions under Mr. Bush - has the potential, if allowed to continue, to erode the very possibility of political compromise. With the attacks on Senator Kerry's war service and antiwar activism, we can see the ground being plowed for a new crop of distemper should the Democrats win the White House.

I believe that our parents were correct for two reasons.

First, a nation consumed with bitter partisanship makes compromise and political transition more difficult. Hatred easily translates into mistrust and suspicion. The remarkable aspect of American politics is that despite a vibrant two-party system, electoral losers lose gracefully and winners win with admiration for those over whom they have triumphed. But intense anger in the system has the potential to make a transfer of power difficult and has the potential to create political deadlock when such vitriol enters the halls of Congress.

Second, the translation of policy difference into claims of extremism ignores that our two major parties are, in general, quite similar in their policy prescriptions. Both parties support national defense, economic growth through capitalism, protection of the environment, participation in global peacekeeping organizations, quality education, and aid to families in need. Democrats and Republicans do differ in their degree of support for these policies and how the goals should be achieved, but there have not been radical disagreements, despite what partisan ranters would have Americans believe. If there is more than a dime's worth of difference between the parties, there is not, perhaps, a dollar's worth. Vigorous political debate and involvement in support of one's preferred candidate helps the system, while abhorrence erodes it.

How does such hatred come about?

Social scientists have described a phenomenon termed "parasocial interaction." This refers to the fact that we believe that we know people that we have never personally met, particularly in a world awash in media. The vivid and provocative images that the media bring into our living rooms and bedrooms create the impression of intimacy. We are shown these strangers, warts and all.

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