This is the third and final installment of a series that has begun appearing in several newspapers in my very Republican congressional District (VA-06).
(I’ve given the whole series the title “If You’re Closed-Minded, Don’t Read This,” in the hope that it will get conservatives to actually read the columns, rather than just skipping them because I’m their author and they have pegged me as a “librel” and therefore not anyone who could possibly have anything worthwhile to say.)
I have written here before, and I will be writing again, about the importance of Liberal America making an effort to reach the Republican base to bring them back a) from the false picture of the world they have been sold and to a better contact with reality and b) from the dark passions that right-wing propagandists have worked to inflame in them over the past generation and to the better angels of their nature.
It is far from clear what will work to move that “conservative” word– so impermeable has it proved to be in recent years. But it is clear that too much of America’s destiny depends on their being healed for it to be acceptable to give up on that possibility without even trying.
This is not instead of beating them at the ballot box. That must be done. We cannot have the crazy governing our destiny. Rather, it is in addition to the ongoing effort of liberals/Democrats to regain the levers of power in America
This series represents my belief that a good place to start may well be by addressing the relationship between liberals and conservatives. More specifically, the ENMITY toward liberals that has been cultivated in conservatives over the years, with truly disastrous consequences for American democracy (consequences that will be discussed in the third installment of the series.
I make no pretense to know that this approach will have positive effects. All I can say is that it is what I have felt called upon to send their way.
III. How Hate Poisons the Political Well
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. And that
- In view of the choices that the rest of the peoples of advanced nations have made, the right’s dismissal of “the Democratic agenda” as extreme and wrong-headed is unwarranted. And that
- Even if liberals were terrible people, and even if their views on certain issues are reprehensible, making the relationship across the divide all about conflict, rather than about finding areas of agreement to cooperate on for the good of the nation, is not how our founders wanted us Americans to use the system they bequeathed to us.
This last point points toward what I will try to show in this installment: how this enmity is not only unjustified, but is at the heart of how our American democracy is being destroyed.
Divide and Conquer
Although the enmity of conservatives toward liberals may have no justification, 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.
Ideally, if a majority of the American people want to accomplish something, then within the limits of the Constitution they will be able to do so. But dividing the people against each other enables a well-positioned minority to frustrate that majority and 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. Enemies to be hated, not fellow citizens with whom to find common ground.
On issue after issue, this age-old strategy of “divide and conquer” has allowed the force that has taken over the Republican Party to effect its will – against the direction national polls showed the American people as a whole wanted to go.
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 — might help solve some mysteries concerning the unwavering support American conservatives have given a Republican Party behaving in extraordinary (often 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 – without any evident sense of outrage, and without withdrawing their support.
Again and again, the Republicans have engaged in unprecedented behavior that 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 an unprecedented strategy damaging to our constitutional system.
How could genuine conservatives support such violations of American tradition? A plausible answer presents itself: 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 satisfying and seem justified.
A second mystery is how the Republican Party can keep its supporters loyal while doing nothing to actually help them, often 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 (many of them Republican supporters) in order to transfer trillions of dollars to the richest 1/10th of 1% (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 voter base will stick with them. How can that be?
A possible answer: Once people’s hearts are full enough of enmity, they may find reason enough to be satisfied with political leaders who express well enough the resentment and rage they feel against those they regard as their enemies.
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
A person with strong feelings of antagonism and revulsion, that have developed over the course of decades, cannot simply wish them away. Nonetheless, there is a path forward that’s immediately available.
To introduce that path, I’d like to say two things to conservatives who recognize in themselves such feelings of enmity toward liberals/Democrats.
First, you should know that, over the 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: a great many conversations among liberals these days are efforts to understand what’s going on among our fellow citizens on the right. And with that puzzlement comes a feeling of estrangement.
But even so, I feel safe in assuring you of this: liberals/Democrats still would welcome you if you became available for a cooperative effort to use our political system to improve America. 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.
So here’s the simple way forward: set the feelings aside and seek 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 – would follow in time.
Andy Schmookler – award-winning author and former candidate for Congress in VA-06 – is writing a series titled “A Better Human Story,” which can be found at http://abetterhumanstory.org/.