Rage Rules American Politics

And it may be making violence more likely.


In the wake of two high-profile mass shootings over the weekend, the conversation got a little vitriolic in America. Again.

Screaming at each other over policy disputes, the loudest segments of the population set out to prove that they are unworthy to ever be trusted with the power to rule over people with whom they disagree. They made their case well, and it would be advisable to refuse deference to any government that any of them control.

To my taste, gun control advocates are hard to beat for pure nastiness, cranking the rhetoric volume to 11 even as they insist that they're advocates for peace. It's par for the course for them to call people who defend the self-defense rights of innocent people "terrorists" with "blood on their hands." Outside the home of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), they wished for somebody to "stab the motherfucker in the heart."

"Americans have a lot of work to do, and that work starts with calling those you disagree with politically murderers," joked the satire site The Babylon Bee in response to the heated verbiage.

McConnell's party is up to the challenge of amping up the language in turn. Just weeks ago, Republicans sent chills down the spines of their opponents with calls to deport a group of left-wing members of Congress, most of whom were born and raised in the United States. They should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," president Trump said. "Send her back," his supporters chanted at a rally.

Leading up to the recent vileness competition, Americans had already stoked their mutual dislike to a roaring blaze. While the 2016 presidential race was still being waged, Pew Research reported that "partisans' views of the opposing party are now more negative than at any point in nearly a quarter of a century."

Just "negative" views of each other? Oh, those were innocent and carefree days!

By fall of 2018, an Axios poll found that roughly half of the surveyed Democrats and Republicans alike considered each other "ignorant" and "spiteful." More strongly, 21 percent of Democrats said Republicans were "evil," and 23 percent of Republicans said the same about Democrats.

Considering your political opponents "ignorant," "spiteful," and "evil" is a bigger deal than just having negative views about them because it raises the stakes in the fight over the vast power of the modern state. Government controls law enforcement, the regulatory apparatus, and the intelligence community and the ability to target those powers wisely or malevolently. How do you casually walk away from a lost election if you think the people who won the ability to manipulate that apparatus are malicious and will wield their power stupidly and spitefully?

Chances are, the thought of being ruled by evil people fills you with dread. And you ramp up the insults and apocalyptic language accordingly, with all that entails.

By last month, 78 percent of Americans told pollsters that "heated or aggressive" language in political debate makes violence more likely. Americans should know. Beyond politically motivated shootings and street fighting involving a tiny minority, too many people in this country really are ready to start swinging.

Reporting that over 40 percent Americans now say the political opposition is "downright evil" and many think the country would be better off if opponents "just died," a paper published this year shows a shift toward acceptance of political violence.

"Violence would be justified" if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election say 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans, according to the report by Nathan P. Kalmoe and Lilliana Mason, political scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland.

But coming out on top doesn't make things better. Anticipating an election win increased support for violence in the study.

That's disturbing. It also may be inevitable. "I told you so," the ghost of Alexis de Tocqueville gets to say, if he's the gloating sort.

"Several particular circumstances in America also tend to make the power of the majority not only predominant, but irresistible," de Tocqueville wrote in his often prescient 19th-century study of the United States. He warned that majoritarian dominance would breed conflict.

"If liberty is ever lost in America, it will be necessary to lay the blame on the omnipotence of the majority that will have brought minorities to despair and will have forced them to appeal to physical force. Then you will see anarchy, but it will arrive as a consequence of despotism."

At the prospect of being at the mercy of a temporary majority of their political enemies, Americans clearly are brought to despair. Anarchy sounds like a fair alternative to being governed by either Republicans or Democrats empowered to turn their mutual loathing into official policy.

Those of us who reject both hateful factions are likely in for as rough a ride as the supporters of whichever legacy party gets the short end of the stick. We're not with the in-group, so we're bound to be regarded as enemies by whoever wins.

Dialing down the power of the state is always a good idea, and doing so long ago might have avoided the current situation by reducing the stakes of our political contests. But we're stuck with the government we have and it's being fought over by squabbling bands of lunatics who hate each other.

Refusing to submit to whoever comes out on top in the national screaming contest is just good sense.