How American politics became consumed with hate
It’s risky to make snap judgments in the wake of an event like Wednesday’s congressional baseball practice shooting. Facts are murky and the initial reports are often wrong. It is easy to make sweeping generalizations about the underlying cause that always seem to confirm our beliefs.
But there is a sickness in our political climate. Nearly two decades into our status as a 50-50 country, split into red states and blue states, many people on both sides of the political divide have literally begun to hate each other.
That seems to describe James T. Hodgkinson, the man authorities believe opened fire on Republicans practicing for the annual charity baseball game, striking House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), a congressional aide, and two Capitol Police officers before he was fatally injured in the shootout.
Hodgkinson spent his time posting angry left-wing political missives, reportedly dwelling in Facebook groups with names like "Terminate the Republican Party" and "The Road to Hell is Paved with Republicans."
Plenty of people write cranky letters to the editor and trash-talk political opponents on social media. Many treat partisan politics the same as rooting for a sports team. It’s also possible to overdo nostalgia for bygone eras of bipartisanship, with exaggerated stories about Ronald Reagan drinking with Tip O’Neill.
Nevertheless, there has been a steady escalation of political warfare. We read articles trying to teach us how to share holiday meals with relatives who have different political opinions. We watch simulated assassinations of President Trump or believe bizarre conspiracy theories about Democratic leaders running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor (the latter inciting a right-winger to take up arms himself).
There are left-wingers who wish injury and disease on Republicans who cast the wrong votes on ObamaCare. There are alt-right provocateurs who tweet racist slurs and images of concentration camps, fantasizing about the deaths of political opponents.
Some of these people are anonymous trolls whose numbers are hard to quantify. Occasionally, they put their names on their vitriol.
People can now wall themselves off from opposing political positions or spend all day screaming online at faceless strangers who they know disagree with them. Everyone who writes on the internet knows about Twitter users with no followers whose tweets consist entirely of vulgar insults, almost playground taunts, directed at the other side.
To the extent that there is actual debate, it is often with a cartoon villain version of one’s political opponents rather than engagement with their best arguments and ideas. This is something both left and right, Republican and Democrat, have been guilty of in recent years.
A non-trivial number of people now not only believe the worst conspiracy theories about their political rival, but that the opposition party is collectively trying to murder them, suppress their religion, take away their rights, or make them sick.
Even if Hodgkinson turns out to have simply been a mentally ill person who snapped, with little connection to this broader phenomenon, it seems inevitable that a political climate like this will lead to violence. Peering into the dark recesses of social media, one can see a disturbingly high number of potential Hodgkinsons out there.
Trump’s style has made things worse, but he is a symptom as much as a cause. Things deteriorated under two consecutive presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who explicitly promised to unite the country. The states that voted to re-elect Bush were caricatured as "Jesusland" and Obama was the target of racist birtherism.
The worst of Trump’s supporters and opponents have now given themselves permission to behave as badly as possible, each pointing to the other when called out for it.
Politics does have real-world, even life-and-death, implications. Health-care changes can make sick people lose their insurance when they most depend on it. Gun laws can make it easier for criminals to obtain guns or harder for people to defend themselves.
You might believe climate change is literally imperiling the lives of millions. I might believe abortion constitutes the legal killing of unborn children. We both agree that our preventive wars in places like Iraq and Libya have unleashed jihadist murderers who are targeting innocents.
Without some degree of humility, we could all allow these important issues to whip us into a murderous frenzy. That’s not an argument for censoring our political discourse to avoid provoking madmen. It is an argument for treating people across the political divide with dignity and recognizing the fallibility of our own opinions.