You may have had this experience recently: As you watch someone from the opposing party on television saying something you know isn't true or holding fast to some plainly immoral position, you ask yourself, "Just what is wrong with them? Are they stupid, or do they just not care?"
"Happy families," Tolstoy wrote, "are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And people who agree with us politically are all alike as well: They're right. We don't concern ourselves much with their psychology, their motives, or their intelligence. Was their reasoning sound, did they rationally evaluate the evidence, were their conclusions based too much on emotion? To these questions, we're likely to answer: Who cares? Once they've arrived at the right destination, their journey is beside the point. Our opponents, on the other hand, provide much richer ground for analysis. Why are they so wrong? Are they idiots, are they liars, do they hold different values than we do? Are they mentally ill or actually evil? You could wonder about it for hours, and many of us do.
The most generous conclusion one could draw about one's opponents -- that they are people of good will who have merely come to some mistaken conclusions for essentially benign reasons -- can be awfully hard to sustain when you have to hear them express their awful beliefs day after day. If you care about politics, you think policy positions matter to people's lives, and that makes it even harder to think well of those who disagree with you. The choices we make about policy are freighted with practical and moral import. Some are truly complex and involve uncertain predictions about the future, but many involve a simple moral calculus. For example, if I believe that the fact that there are more than 50 million Americans without health insurance is a moral outrage and you don't, it means, in ways that are hardly trivial, that we are different kinds of people.
It's always the case that a Democratic president means good times for conservatives who are mad as hell and that the opposite is true when the White House is in Republican hands. Angry books move up the best-seller list, the audiences grow for radio shows and magazines that represent the opposition, and we pay more attention to those who shake their fists. And for some time now, people on both the right and the left have devoted time to explaining why the other side is not merely wrong but spit from the very fires of hell to lead us to our destruction.
There are two key differences, however. First, the rage on the right was only slightly lower when Republicans held all the levers of government power. Even when George W. Bush was president and Republicans held both houses of Congress, one could go into any bookstore and find a dozen tomes about how liberals were destroying America. Second, those making this argument on the right have vastly higher profiles and positions of greater influence within the party than those on the left saying something similar. They are officeholders, guests on television shows, and people with nationally syndicated radio programs.
In the early 1960s, Marshall McLuhan argued that modern media were creating a "global village" in which we would all share a common culture. Though he was right in some ways, tribalism remains as powerful a force as ever. We may all see the same movies, but we have more ways than ever of defining who counts as "us" and who counts as "them," even as we hold on to the old standbys of nationality, race, and religion. And one of the central arguments many conservatives make about liberals, and in particular about Barack Obama, is that they are not truly American (perhaps literally) or at the very least are in the grip of foreign ideas.
But are things any worse now than they have been in the past? We certainly have more access to the noxious bile simmering in others' hearts. The anonymity provided by the Internet removes the social cost of bad behavior, giving people permission to be cruel or vulgar -- an opportunity some take with gusto. As someone who offers my political opinions to the public, I've gotten plenty of hate mail, particularly on those occasions when I have appeared on, or been mentioned on, a conservative talk show. (Some of it is quite creative: During the 2004 presidential campaign, I appeared on The O'Reilly Factor and defended John Kerry from the Swift Boat attacks, whereupon a gentleman e-mailed to let me know that he and his buddies had downloaded a picture of me and printed out copies, which they placed in the urinals at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall so they could piss on my face.) I've always found the psychology of the act curious. How does "I disagree strongly with what that person said" make the leap to "I will write that person an e-mail to tell him what a jerk I think he is?"
The venom can itself lead one to conclude that those with whom we disagree are beyond help and reason. But that doesn't offer proof that one should get meaner in response. It's possible to believe that one's opponents are a horrifying band of moral monsters and simultaneously believe that calling them that out loud and refusing ever to compromise with them doesn't do your side much good. There's little evidence that the nastiest line or the most unrestrained questioning of motives produces more political victories. And no matter how much you hate the other side, they aren't going anywhere.