In the mid-1990s one of us had a friend who was a fanatically proud graduate of Auburn University. His man cave was a shrine to the school’s football team — Tigers everywhere. But one day he admitted something disturbing: As much as he loved watching his Tigers win, he took even greater satisfaction watching the Alabama Crimson Tide lose. The hatred he had for his rival was more powerful than the love he had for his alma mater.
Welcome to the world of American politics in the year 2020, where voters have taken rival-hatred even further than football fans.
Consider this: A poll of likely New Hampshire Democratic voters taken on the eve of their primary found that 95% disapproved of the job President Trump has been doing. Not at all shocking. But when asked which of the following outcomes they would prefer on election day this November, “Donald Trump wins reelection,” or “a giant meteor strikes the Earth, extinguishing all human life,” 62% picked the meteor.
Seeing a favored candidate lose a presidential election is something Americans have experienced since the country was founded. It’s unpleasant. It might even feel like the end of the world, but you make the best of it for four years. To actually prefer the end of the world to four more years of Trump is mind-boggling. We hope, of course, that respondents were exaggerating, but these days, who knows for sure?
Here’s what’s so dangerous about that kind of thinking: Preferring Armageddon to having the opposition in control of government means you regard the other side as the embodiment of pure evil. Once that happens, there is a tendency for things to get more and more extreme, as happened in both the French and Russian revolutions.
And the logic of hatred does not stop. As soon as one side has won, the victors begin examining their own ranks for factions to punish. Lest we forget, Robespierre, one of the French Revolution’s leaders, was later sent to the guillotine by those he fought alongside, and Stalin’s secret police chiefs also met gruesome deaths.
Reading of such events, one might experience the grim satisfaction at just deserts. But surely it would be better if politics as hatred had not been practiced at all.
Even if the people who said they’d prefer a meteor strike didn’t really mean it, it is still scary that they were willing to say it. Once we demonize our opponents, it’s easier to sign on to extreme positions we don’t really believe. And that brings us another step closer to democratic collapse.
It does not take a majority of people to believe in mass cruelty or harsh punishment to make it happen. We have witnessed that horrible tale all too often. It takes only a dynamic in which the other side is considered unequivocally evil, where people belonging to one faction feel that they are not just a group of fallible human beings but are part of a congregation of the blessed, fighting demonic forces. History suggests that once “the slide” begins, everything accelerates. Positions that are inconceivable one year become fringe the next, and then mainstream soon after.
This is what we call political fundamentalism. As in the apocalypse, all the good are on one side, and all the evil on the other. There is no middle ground, and there can therefore be no compromise.
In a world governed by such beliefs, the only valid election would be one that the “right” side was guaranteed to win. The Soviets, of course, perfected that approach, staging “elections” wherein people were offered a “choice” of only one candidate.
The 20th century philosopher Eric Hoffer would not have been surprised by much in our current situation. True believers may not believe in a god, he said, but they must believe in a devil. And it is hatred for this devil, not love or respect for what is good, that unifies them.
Still, Hoffer noted that on occasion great leaders emerge who “harness man’s hungers and fears to weld a following and make it zealous unto death in service of a holy cause; but unlike a Hitler, a Stalin, or even a Luther and a Calvin, they are not tempted to use the slime of frustrated souls as mortar in the building of a new world ... they know that no one can be honorable unless he honors mankind.”
Honoring mankind! Finding and speaking to what is good in all of us. What a novel idea, one that we need desperately to rediscover today, before the political meteor strikes.
Gary Saul Morson is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. Morton Schapiro is university president and a professor of economics. They are the authors of “Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can learn From the Humanities.”