Us and them

UW–Madison graduate Jeff Greenfield on PBS:

It was just one line from Senator Bob Dole’s acceptance speech more than 20 years ago, but it speaks volumes about where our politics is today. He was talking about the contrast between himself and his rival, President Bill Clinton.


This is not the outlook of my opponent — and he is my opponent, not my enemy.


Think about that for a minute. An “opponent” is someone you battle— in an election, on a ball field— but with a common understanding of the rules of the game, and a mutual willingness to abide by the outcome.


He is my opponent, not my enemy.


But an “enemy”?—that’s very different; an enemy is someone who poses a threat to your survival, someone to be fought “by any means necessary”. And that’s increasingly how Americans have come to view those on the other side of the political divide.

For instance, if your competitor is an “enemy”, it makes perfect sense for you to not just defeat her, but to imprison her.


Lock her up is right.


“Lock her up! Lock her up!


It makes sense to regard your critics not just as an inevitable part of the tension between press and politicians, but as something worse: … “the enemy of the American people.”


And this crooked media. You talk about crooked Hillary. They’re worse than she is.


And it’s not just the President doing it. Back in October 2015, Hillary Clinton was asked who she regarded as her “enemy”, she answered:


In addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, and the Iranians, probably the Republicans.”


This increasingly dark view of the opposition has now become a dominant feature of the American political landscape. Survey after survey has shown that Republicans and Democrats now view each other not simply as “wrong” but as malevolent, literally a danger to the republic.


Lock him up! Lock him up!


According to Pew research, 45% of Republicans now say that Democratic policies “threaten the nation’s well-being,” while 41% of Democrats view GOP policies in equally stark terms.

The most dramatic example of this mutual hostility is this:

back in 1960, only 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said they’d be “displeased” if a child married someone from the other major party. Half a century later, half of Republicans and more than a third of Democrats said yes —they would be “somewhat or very unhappy”.


What makes this “tribalism” particularly dangerous is that it has grown at a time when one of America’s core convictions—the worth of a free society—has eroded, especially among the young. They are simply less and less convinced that democracy is all that important.

Among Americans born in the 1930s, 72% said that living in a democracy was “essential.” Among those born in in the 1980s, the number is thirty percent. The less faith in an open society, the more reason there is to believe that politics is more like warfare than a contest for power where limits apply.

The guardrails that protect our constitutional republic have endured for more than two centuries, in the face of challenges far greater than today’s. But when you combine a growing sense that your political opponents are enemies with doubts about the very worth of a free society, you threaten some of our bedrock assumptions about how the oldest representative democracy in the world stays healthy.

This might count as the least surprising news of the day. And it didn’t start with The Donald or Hillary. Hot Air notes something Barack Obama said in 2010:

“If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,’ if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s gonna be harder and that’s why I think it’s so important that people focus on voting on November 2.”

Predictably, PBS viewers seem to believe this is the fault of Republicans. One posted this from Newsweek in November 1994:

To Newt Gingrich, Democrats are not just the opposition. They are “traitors” and the party of “total bizarreness, total weirdness.” House Minority Whip Gingrich recently told a group of lobbyists that Democrats were the “enemy of normal Americans.”

Other comments perfectly reflected Greenfield’s point by pointing fingers at the other side.

The cause of this should be obvious, and I’ve pointed that out here before this. Government has gotten so large and so powerful that the stakes in elections have ballooned far beyond what the Founding Fathers, or indeed anyone in government or politics before the Great Depression, intended. Power corrupts, as the saying goes. Add to that each side wants more power and proposes to do that by taking away something of the other side — in the case of the Democrats, the money of Republicans through higher taxes, as well as gun rights.



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