As angry and politically active as I am this presidential election, I'm starting to notice a problem as I fight for my side: The more engaged I am and the more the polls seesaw, the more I find I have an ugly desire to see the worst in the other side. The technical term for this condition is hate.
Maybe you've had a bit of the same problem?
Try this experiment: Imagine that last week you read a report that the candidate you oppose did something truly awful – assaulted someone, took a bribe – something like that. The polls swing toward your side. Then, today, you learn it's untrue – the candidate is innocent. How do you feel? Disappointed? I think I know the feeling. It's a bad sign.
Here's why: Hate has the annoying tendency to turn into hypocrisy. I laugh with glee when my side catches the other's lies and follies. To a point, that's healthy and cathartic.
But you don't hear me laughing when the other side returns the favor. Then I discount the point and quietly fume at the attack itself. Don't they understand our side is the good one?
And so it goes: They smear us; we uncover the truth about them. They have corrupt contributors; we're creating a badly needed war chest. Their moral difficulties are untenable; ours, if any, are excusable.
Hate also kills thinking. In 2004, my wife and I did a simple exercise with some of our liberal and conservative friends.
We asked each to imagine seeing their side from the other's perspective. "We're not asking you to agree with them," we said, "we're just asking if you can understand them."
Though our friends were educated, compassionate, and capable of great empathy, they found our request impossible. "I can't," they said. "Maybe I should, but I can't. They're just crazy – or evil." Perhaps you felt that way recently as you watched one of the conventions. "Who are those people?"
Why do politics alienate us? It's true we are more polarized now than we once were, but there never was an idyllic age when politics was kind and gentle. It has always been prone to verbal viciousness, and I think I know one reason why: Physical violence is a no-no.
Politics is a field of battle where bloodshed is discouraged, but much is allowed. At its best, politics can ennoble us; more often, it makes us smaller, and there's nothing new about that. In the 1800 presidential campaign, Thomas Jefferson paid a journalist to publish claims his opponent and friend, John Adams, was deranged.
An inconvenient truth of the political heart is that it's prone to bring out in us the very things we say we hate about the other side. "We have met the enemy," said Pogo, "and he is us." That's true even if we say we want hope and change, and it's true even if we say we believe in loving our enemies.
In warning about hatred, am I buying in to naive rhetoric about ending partisan politics? Insisting that, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all?" Hardly.
A Far Side cartoon captures the danger of mere niceness well: "Although skilled with their pillow arsenal, the Wimpodites were favorite targets of Viking attacks." What then?
Fight hard and well. My wife and I discovered something odd about politics recently: Good political activism – as opposed to sitting around stewing with rage – gave us a measure of peace. If our side won, we rejoiced, knowing we'd helped a little; if it lost, we mourned without bitterness, while acquaintances who'd sat on the sidelines stewed.
I've also learned something recently from Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps: anger can be fuel. I plan to be active this season. And I aim to win.
But can I fight hard without damaging my heart, my relationships, or the country I claim to love?
Borrowing from two astute politicians, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, I'm looking for ways to want good things for the other side, see the good in them, and genuinely see the force of their arguments.
Easy to say, hard to do, but I'm trying. I don't think that means I have to give up my favorite comedians; it does mean checking facts. (Factcheck.org, anyone?)
Even more, it means watching out for the times when I'm savoring bad reports about the other side, thinking, "now we've got you, you @#$&!"
Think of it as a kind of counterinsurgency. Or a response to another, more serious, inconvenient truth.