As much as we bemoan our polarized politics, dislike for one's political opponents is one of the most powerful engines that drives political participation. It isn't necessarily wrong to be mad or think that the other side is nuts -- all of us do, at some point or another. But that belief can lead partisans to some places that don't do them any favors when it comes to making their case to the public.
We saw how last week, when the most memorable moment of a Republican presidential debate came not from one of the candidates but from the audience. As part of a question to Rick Perry about Texas's administration of the death penalty, Brian Williams noted that during Perry's tenure, the state has executed 234 prisoners, more than under any governor in America since the death penalty was restored. At the mention of this statistic, the crowd of Republicans burst into applause.
Some commentators saw this as an expression of bloodlust, the evidence of something dark and ugly within the souls of at least those gathered at the Reagan Library to watch their presidential contenders. I would argue, however, that more than anything it was a performative act. Those audience members knew they were on television and knew their opponents were watching. The applause was about identity more than policy -- who they are, who their opponents are, and how they see each other. It was as much to say, "Liberals will hate it when we applaud for the death penalty!" as it was to express support for the death penalty itself.
It was appropriate that Rick Perry was the vehicle for this expression, since he is the candidate that most embodies the cultural and geographical differences that supposedly divide liberals and conservatives today. Perry speaks with a thick drawl, carries a gun, thinks evolution is just a wacky theory, and enthusiastically injects his particular religious views into public debate and public action (he famously issued an official proclamation asking people to pray for rain, a prayer that at press time God had not yet answered, and has made clear his belief that all non-Christians are headed for hell).
Even if you accept that these characteristics will indeed lead liberals to a venomous dislike of Perry, that sounds like an awfully poor basis on which to choose your preferred primary candidate. But for some, it's enough. Visit conservative websites, and you'll see a regular stream of posts and comments gleefully explaining how Perry is going to drive liberals batty (see here, for example). National Review editor Rich Lowry recently wrote that Perry will "become a byword for Red State simplemindedness in the New York Times and an object of derision for self-appointed cultural sophisticates everywhere." It was left to his colleague Jonah Goldberg, of all people, to object. Though Goldberg admitted that liberal criticisms "make it impossible for me not to love Bush, Perry, Palin et al. for their enemies," he added that "conservatism needs to spend less time defending candidates for who they are, and more time supporting candidates for what they intend to do."
It isn't really Perry's fault if he is winning votes because some conservatives think he'll be the candidate most likely to be scorned by those "cultural sophisticates." Unlike Sarah Palin, the GOP's most prominent advocate of conservative identity politics, Perry doesn't seem consumed with what liberals think of him. The former Alaska governor, on the other hand, seldom misses an opportunity to proclaim that what she's doing or saying is sure gonna make her enemies (the media, the liberals, the urbanites) mad, as though that's proof enough that she's right.
Do liberals do the same thing? To an extent, but I would argue that while they are just as likely to define themselves by their political opponents as conservatives are, they spend far less time worrying about whether they're infuriating those who hail from different cultural milieus. It's one thing to say that opposing the policies of Republicans is what makes you a liberal but quite another to take a position or support a candidate simply because you hope it will exasperate the other side.
Consider the support Barack Obama got when he ran four years ago. If Perry seems like he was grown in a lab to make those from the opposing party uneasy, the same could be said about Obama. A biracial, cosmopolitan Ivy Leaguer from a big city whose middle name is Hussein, Obama couldn't have been more opposed to contemporary Republican cultural identity unless he was also running a communist Wiccan abortion clinic out of his campaign office (and some Republican voters probably thought he was). Yet no Democrat ever suggested that the likely conservative reaction to Obama was a reason to support him. More than a few fretted that these things might make him unelectable (as some Republicans are now worrying about Perry), but if a liberal pundit ever argued that the inevitable right-wing freakout over this unusual candidate was something to be welcomed, I certainly never saw it. The right's hatred for Hillary Clinton was likewise cited as a potential liability for her, not a reason she ought to be the nominee.
Conservatives might respond that the left's indifference to the reactions of the right is the privilege of the cultural elite. Those chardonnay-sipping Manhattanites and Hollywood liberals don't need to worry about what real Americans think, but the real Americans can't help but be affected by scorn from above, against which they naturally react. That might explain the importance of cultural products that allow you to give the finger to those you don't like -- and how these products have far more meaning on the right than on the left. As with so much of our cultural divisions, it has its most direct roots in the 1960s.
In 1969, Merle Haggard recorded "Okie From Muskogee," a tribute to Southern identity that took shots at the left ("We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin' right, and bein' free"). As J. Lester Feder explained a few years ago in the Prospect, a series of country "backlash songs" followed, and Richard Nixon took the opportunity to herald country music as an expression of conservative values, declaring October 1970 "Country Music Month" and making the first presidential visit to the Grand Ole Opry.
Music may for all of us be the cultural product most freighted with identity (few journalist questions are more feared than "What's on your iPod?" Candidates typically give a carefully crafted response -- Democrats cite Springsteen and Mellencamp for blue-collar liberal credibility; Republicans offer country artists for "real America" bona fides), but it doesn't end there. Before the 2004 election, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake coined the term "NASCAR dads" to refer to white culturally conservative men; pundits and reporters found the shorthand irresistible, and "soccer moms" were shunted aside as the hot political demographic of the moment. NASCAR became, even more than it had been, a political statement, one aimed directly at those who find cars driving around in an oval for three hours less than compelling. Wearing your Dale Jr. hat didn't just proclaim a fan's allegiance, it was a way of challenging those liberals to make something of it.
The applause for Texas's prodigious use of the death penalty won't be the last time we see a vivid illustration of the pleasure some on the right take in trying to disturb liberals. But if that's what makes them happy, they should go right ahead. It may make you feel good, but it doesn't persuade anyone. Late in the 1992 campaign, George H.W. Bush held up a bumper sticker reading, "Annoy the media -- re-elect Bush." It didn't work then, either.