February 20, 2006
The angry extremes
Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University writes a short piece in the Opinion Journal today on the dangers of political anger. Brooks doesn't provide the source research for the claims he makes in this oped, but I'm not going to argue. The professor is "preaching to the choir" as far as I'm concerned.
To begin with, there is abundant evidence that extreme political opinions lead to the personal demonization of fellow citizens. Consider, for example, how those on the far left and far right respond when asked for a zero-to-100 score of their feelings toward people with whom they disagree politically. Political scientists find that scores below 20 on these so-called feeling thermometers are very unusual--except on the political fringes. Indeed, according to the 2004 National Election Study, one in five "extremely liberal" people gave conservatives a score of zero, a temperature you or I might reserve for Osama bin Laden. The same percentage of "extremely conservative" people gave liberals a zero.
Ironically, these angry folks tend to feel that they are more compassionate than others--while their personal actions tell a different story. Take people on the far left. According to the General Social Surveys in 2002 and 2004, those who say they're "extremely liberal" are 20 percentage points more likely than moderates to say they feel concern for less fortunate people. But this doesn't appear to translate well to a deep concern for any individual: This group is also 20 points less likely than moderates to say they'd "endure all things for the one I love." To some, this might support the stereotype that the far left loves humanity--but only in large groups.
Like extreme liberals, extreme conservatives are more compassionate in theory than in practice: They are slightly more likely than centrists to say they "feel protective of people who are taken advantage of." Unless, it seems, they are the ones taking advantage: It turns out they are substantially less likely than moderates to act honestly in small ways, such as returning change mistakenly given them by a cashier.
These results certainly square with my personal experience. I also agree with Brook's assertion that the number of Americans out on the angry extremes is growing, and that this is bad news for America.
A candidate winning a governorship or the presidency usually mutters a common platitude to the effect that they intend to be the "President of all the people." A few of the more centrist-minded might even mean it. Of course, it is literally true; G.W. Bush is the President for all Americans including Democrats. We know that they are unhappy about that, but the more interesting question is how does Bush, or any such political leader, feel about the people who opposed him in the election.
Does winning the election mean "it's pay-back time!" or is it a call to relax the ideological barriers and try to appreciate and integrate the ideas and desires of all one's constituents. I'm not so naive to believe that the highly partisan candidates of today will magically transform into centrist coalition builders upon election, but I do not think it unreasonable to ask that leaders feel respect for all the people they lead, not just those that donated to the campaign war chest.
There are powerful voices in our political debate who make a point of bragging their depth of hatred for a large chuck of Americans. I hope I am not alone in finding that distressing. Even more distressing is the thought of such people gaining power over the country. In the heat of a campaign it can be difficult to remember that the "other-guys" are fellow Americans, neighbors, whom we supposedly respect and even love. Difficult to do but vital. If the guy I didn't support wins the election, I am disappointed. That's natural, but I can remain calm and constructively involved in the community if I believe that the new leader takes my well-being seriously. But if the new leader openly expresses his hate for me, because of my religion, or race, or because I have tended to vote for people with different priorities and ideas; well then I might get pretty nervous, and be less eager to cooperate.
As bad as things are in the U.S., they seem worse abroad. "Sowing the wind" seems the common practice throughout the Muslim world, and we all dread the harvest. Our old friends in Europe argue over whether it is better to hate the U.S. for doing too much in the middle-east, or for doing too little. Being clever fellows, perhaps they will find the means to hate us for both.
I take refuge, in my less rational moments, in a happy dream about a candidate and a party who are not defined by hatreds and anger, and a country that tires of bile and snarling, turning, perhaps in boredom, to the "refreshingly-new," old idea of American optimism. Some of us can remember how the Reagan campaign in 1980 felt after a decade characterized as 'malaise." Are we too cynical now to be moved by such a corny approach? Have we become sophisticated like the Euro's, expressing the customary pleasantries and believing none of it?
As I said, it's just a day-dream, but it keeps me moving these days...
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