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Why We Hate Them, Why They Hate Us

The science of political hyperpolarization

It might not surprise you that some Americans think the other side (politically) is evil, and would like to see them die. It might surprise you, though, how many people believe that — and that more of them are Democrats. In his NYT column today, Tom Edsall looks at recent academic research that finds just over 42 percent of the people in each party view those in the other party as “evil.” But wait, there’s more:

Kalmoe and Mason, taking the exploration of partisan animosity a step farther, found that nearly one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.”

Their line of questioning did not stop there.

How about: “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?”

Some 20 percent of Democrats (that translates to 12.6 million voters) and 16 percent of Republicans (or 7.9 million voters) do think on occasion that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposition died.

We’re not finished: “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3 percent of Democrats and 13.8 percent of Republicans said violence would be justified on a scale ranging from “a little” to “a lot.”

Well, you have to figure that each party has its own troglodytes who think this way, right? Guess what:

As partisan hostility deepens, there is one group that might ordinarily be expected to help pull the electorate out of this morass — the most knowledgeable and sophisticated voters.

According to a forthcoming study, however, it is just these voters who display the most uncritical acceptance of party orthodoxy, left or right. On both sides, the best informed voters are by far the most partisan.

You could say that it’s the best informed voters who are the most consistent voters. But you could also say that they are the most abstract ones, the ones least likely to understands what it takes to live peaceably in a pluralistic society.

In marriage preparation, pastors tell couples to watch out for the temptation to have to be right all the time. This can be very destructive in a marriage. To have a successful marriage requires the wisdom to know that the marriage is more important than your own individual needs, and to know when you should give ground for the sake of the greater good. It used to be that this was considered the art of political wisdom, but we seem to have lost that. If a politician compromises with the other side, he’s liable to be primaried by voters who consider him to be a sellout.

Edsall goes on to talk with Steven Pinker and others who explain why this is happening. It’s all pretty convincing, and pretty depressing. Edsall goes on:

When, if ever, will things improve? Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at N.Y.U., is not optimistic. He emailed:

I am expecting that America’s political dysfunction and anger will worsen, and will continue to worsen even after Donald Trump leaves the White House.


The reasons for my pessimism are that 1) social media gets ever more effective at drowning us in outrage; 2) overall trust in institutions continues to decline, which makes it seem ever more urgent that “our” side take total control; 3) the younger generations have not seen effective political institutions or norms during their lives, and also seem less adept at handling political disagreements; and 4) the norms of campus regarding call-out culture seem to be spreading quickly into business and many other institutions.

Read the whole thing.

Our political and cultural environment has become so intensely moralized, in the sense of seeking with zeal virtue, absent prudence, that to compromise seems like giving in to evil. We see this in LGBT activism (especially trans activism), where activists claim to fail to meet their demands is to have blood on your hands. It’s a childish and absurd tactic, but I don’t for a second believe that they don’t believe it. Many really do think that it’s a matter of life and death whether or not the first-grade teacher gets to read Jacob’s New Dress to the kids in her class. When you work yourself up into such a frenzy, there has to be discharge somewhere.

One reason I am very pessimistic about the soft totalitarianism coming upon us is that the young have been raised under these conditions, and are strongly partisan to the left. As Haidt says, the norms of campus call-out culture are spreading to all kinds of institutions. This, I fear, is the new normal.

Say, if you’re in New Orleans, tomorrow, come out to UNO on Thursday night to see Melissa Harris Perry and me talk about this stuff. Info here. 



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