Andy Schmookler: If you’re closed minded, don’t read this: Enmity is unjustified and at heart of how democracy is being destroyed
In the first two installments of this series, I’ve argued that the intense enmity of many American conservatives toward liberals/Democrats is not justified. The hostility and contempt are contrary to Christian teachings. The dismissal of “the Democratic agenda” as extreme and wrong-headed is unwarranted in view of the choices that the rest of the peoples of advanced nations have made.
And that even if liberals were terrible people, and even if their views on certain issues are reprehensible, it is not how our founders wanted us Americans to use the system they bequeathed to us to make the relationship across the divide all about conflict, rather than about finding areas of agreement to cooperate on for the good of the nation.
In this installment, I will try to show that this enmity is not only unjustified, but is at the heart of how our American democracy is being destroyed.
Divide and conquer
This enmity of conservatives toward liberals may have no justification. But it does have an explanation.
That enmity did not just happen. It was cultivated, because it serves a purpose for those who have cultivated it. By instilling into one half of America an enmity against the other half – intense enough to prevent their cooperating — “the will of the people” can be nullified.
The system is set up so that those things that a majority of the American people want can be enacted. But dividing the people against themselves enables a well-positioned minority to call the shots.
And that is precisely what’s happened. I’ve watched over the past quarter century as people like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich (and then Fox News) taught people on the right to regard “librels” (and “libtards”) as terrible people beneath contempt. As enemies to be hated.
The age-old strategy of “divide and conquer” has allowed the force that has taken over the Republican Party to effect its will on issue after issue – despite national polls showing that the American people as a whole wanted to go in a different direction.
The power of hate
If the fires of hatred can be stoked hot enough, that enmity can overpower all other considerations.
This fact – of the power of hatred — can help solve some mysteries concerning the continuing support of American conservatives for a Republican Party behaving in extraordinary (and un-American) ways.
It has seemed a mystery, for example, how the principled people on the right whom I knew back in the 1990s could watch their party trample on the basic norms and traditions – and sometimes on the Constitution itself – and show no sign of outrage, no withdrawal of support.
Again and again, the Republicans have engaged in unprecedented behavior that does two things: 1) strikes a blow against Democrats (and liberals), and 2) degrades our system of government. For example:
The Republicans’ across-the-board obstructionism during the eight years of the Obama presidency – culminating in an explicit refusal to consider any nominee put forward by a sitting president to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court – was a strategy that was both unprecedented and damaging to our constitutional system.
The question of how could genuine conservatives support such violations of American tradition has a plausible answer: if you’re hatred is strong enough, if you believe a group of people terrible enough, then anything that’s done against them will feel satisfyingly pleasing and seem justified.
A second mystery is how the Republican Party can keep its supporters loyal while doing nothing to actually help them, sometimes even advancing policies that hurt their supporters.
This year, for example, the Republican-controlled Congress has labored to pass two measures that would hurt tens of millions of average Americans (including Republican supporters) in order to transfer trillions of dollars to the richest 1/10th of 1 percent (who have tripled their share of the national wealth over the past generation) and to the corporate system (whose profits have doubled as a share of our national income), while also adding (probably $2 trillion) to the national debt.
The Republicans have seemed confident that – despite such grotesque “reverse Robin-Hood” measures – their supporters will stick with them. How can that be?
A possible answer: Once people’s hearts are full enough of enmity, it can be enough to make them satisfied with their political leaders that they express well enough one’s resentments and rage and hatred.
In such ways, cultivating enmity toward “the other side” can pay great political dividends to the political force whose politicians and media voices have fostered an ever-uglier picture of who liberals/Democrats are and of what they represent.
The way forward
One cannot simply wish a way strong feelings of antagonism and revulsion that have developed over the course of decades. Even if one decides to reject them.
But, in conclusion, I’d like to say two things to conservatives who recognize in themselves such feelings toward liberals/Democrats.
First, you should know that over these years, this enmity has not for the most part been reciprocated. I have been talking with a lot of both liberals and conservatives for the past quarter century, and for years I saw hardly any of the kind of animosity toward conservatives that is displayed regularly by conservatives toward liberals.
It is true that since the rise of Trump, there has been a change. There is more liberal hostility toward people on the right than there was. But hostility is not the main reaction.
Mostly it is bewilderment: many are the conversations seeking to understand just what’s going on among our fellow citizens on the right. And with that puzzlement, there is a feeling of estrangement.
But even so, I feel safe in assuring you of this: they still would welcome you if you became available to make a cooperative effort to use our political system to make America ever better. And if you let your Republican representatives know you expect them, too, to make such an effort-because that’s how the system our founders gave us is supposed to work
The way forward is simply this: set the feelings aside and work together to come to agreement on solutions that both sides believe are better for America than doing nothing.
That is the way to make America great again.
Moving the nation forward together is the first step. The transformation of the feelings – from antagonism to appreciation, from contempt to mutual respect – will follow in time.