'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.
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.
These attachments or dislikes can be strong, explaining why in moments of pique we may kick our shoes at the TV. John Hinckley infamously attempted to impress Jodie Foster by shooting President Reagan. He had met neither Ms. Foster nor Reagan. Yet, his emotional connection seems commonplace in our media-saturated society. O.J., Princess Di, Madonna, and the pope - we know them all. Likewise, John Kerry and George Bush live in our neighborhood.
Of course, we only know their public actions and personas. What they are like in their private moments is hidden behind curtains of privacy. Surely each man has his ennobling characteristics and his sodden flaws. Like the rest of us, each is a mix of hero, knave, and fool. When we attribute to them a purity of evil or nobility, we are misleading ourselves into blind hatred or naive hero worship. We properly need to see their mixed identities and further to recognize the limits of our knowledge. Most significant, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they are committed to good works, even when we may disagree vigorously with what those good works are and how they might be achieved.
In researching "despised presidents," I discovered something surprising. In the cases of Richard Nixon andBill Clinton, it was not their policies in office that stirred anger. Nixon was a moderate Republican, while Clinton was, famously, a "New Democrat." If both sometimes tipped their hats to their parties' traditional constituencies, these gestures did not represent the heart of their policies. So, too, is the case with Bush a matter of judgment, but a plausible one in a nation in which we can still breathe the air, in which income taxes have not been radically restructured, and in which Medicare has been expanded.
These presidents - Nixon, Clinton, and Bush - were hated for who they were decades before being elected. For Nixon, his service on the House Un-American Activities Committee created a cadre of Americans who could never forgive him. Clinton suffered from the image of this "man from Hope" being a "child of dope," seemingly representing the destructive excesses of the 1960s. Add a persona that opponents found insufferable, and significant numbers of voters responded with ire. George W. Bush - with his image of a feckless child of privilege, a man born on third base, awarded the presidency - faces a similar problem. Stir in what critics call a smirk, poor syntax, and an absence of curiosity, and you've concocted a malign elixir of which many drink.
Perhaps these images are not total fantasies, but they are surely incomplete perspectives of the mature men who wish to lead us. They contribute to an illusion of great or evil men, ignoring the flawed humanity of each of us, politician or voter. We surely can judge what a politician has done during a political career and what policy prescriptions he or she is proposing, and we can be noisy in our support or rejection. We should judge the recent past and the alternative futures proposed. This is productive civic engagement; anger and vituperation over imagined youthful failures is not.
Understanding this may help us step back from the precipice of our politics of passion. Intense anger may satisfy our lust for absolute certainty. But in a society in which we must negotiate, this anger hardens our souls and debases our options. Politics becomes war, not persuasion.
And not only that, such anger prevents us from answering our children's question by saying that our leaders are honorable because we chose them.
• Gary Alan Fine is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University and the author of 'Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of Evil, Inept, and Controversial.'