We Can’t All Just Get Along

In our era of polarization, one party is guiltier than the other.

Susan J. Douglas

Today, 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats say they would be upset if their child married someone from the opposite party. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Edi­tor’s note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly titled We Can’t All Just Get Along” in the print ver­sion of the mag­a­zine. The title was then changed, with­out the author’s knowl­edge or approval, to It’s Okay to Hate Repub­li­cans.” The author rejects the online title as not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the piece or its main points. Her pre­ferred title has been restored. We have also removed from the Com­ments” sec­tion all threats to the author’s life and per­son­al safety.

This isn’t like a fight between siblings, where the parent says, 'It doesn’t matter who started it.' Yes, it does.

I hate Repub­li­cans. I can’t stand the thought of hav­ing to spend the next two years watch­ing Mitch McConnell, John Boehn­er, Ted Cruz, Dar­rell Issa or any of the legions of oth­er blowhards deny­ing cli­mate change, thwart­ing immi­gra­tion reform or cham­pi­oning fetal per­son­hood.”

This loathing is a rel­a­tive­ly recent phe­nom­e­non. Back
 in the 1970s, I worked for a Repub­li­can, Fred Lip­pitt, the sen­ate minor­i­ty leader in Rhode Island, and I loved him. He was a brand of Repub­li­can now extinct — a mod­er­ate” who was fis­cal­ly con­ser­v­a­tive but pro­gres­sive about women’s rights, racial jus­tice and envi­ron­men­tal preser­va­tion. Had he been clos­er to my age, I could have con­tem­plat­ed mar­ry­ing some­one like Fred. Today, mar­ry­ing a Repub­li­can is unimag­in­able to me. And I’m
 not alone. Back in 1960, only 5 
per­cent of Repub­li­cans and 4
 per­cent of Democ­rats said they’d
 be dis­pleased” if their child mar­ried some­one from the oppo­site
 par­ty. Today? Forty-nine per­cent 
of Repub­li­cans and 33 per­cent of
 Democ­rats would be pissed.

Accord­ing to a recent study 
by Stan­ford pro­fes­sor Shan­to
 Iyen­gar and Prince­ton researcher 
Sean West­wood, such polar­iza­tion has increased dra­mat­i­cal­ly 
in recent years. What’s note­wor­thy 
is how entrenched this mutu­al ani­mus is. It’s fine for me to use the word hate” when refer­ring to Repub­li­cans and for them to use the same word about me, but you would nev­er use the word hate” when refer­ring to peo­ple of col­or, or women, or gays and lesbians. 

And now par­ty iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and hatred shape a whole host of non-polit­i­cal deci­sions. Iyen­gar and West­wood asked par­tic­i­pants in their study to review the resumés of grad­u­at­ing high school seniors to decide which ones should receive schol­ar­ships. Some resumés had cues about par­ty affil­i­a­tion (say, mem­ber of the Young Repub­li­cans Club) and some about racial iden­ti­ty (also through extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties, or via a stereo­typ­i­cal name). Race mat­tered, but not near­ly as much as par­ti­san­ship. An over­whelm­ing 80 per­cent of par­ti­sans chose the stu­dent of their own par­ty. And this held true even if the can­di­date from the oppo­site par­ty had bet­ter credentials.

How did we come to this pass? Obvi­ous­ly, my ten­den­cy is to blame the Repub­li­cans more than the Democ­rats, which may seem biased. But his­to­ry and psy­cho­log­i­cal research bear me out.

Let’s start with the his­to­ry. This isn’t like a fight between sib­lings, where the par­ent says, It doesn’t mat­ter who start­ed it.” Yes, it does.

A brief review of Repub­li­can rhetoric and strate­gies since the 1980s shows an esca­la­tion of deter­mined vil­i­fi­ca­tion (which has been ampli­fied relent­less­ly on Fox News since 1996). From Spiro Agnew’s attack on intel­lec­tu­als as an effete corps of impu­dent snobs”; to Rush Limbaugh’s hate speech; to the GOP’s end­less cam­paign
to smear the Clin­tons over White­wa­ter, then blud­geon Bill over Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky; to the cease­less den­i­gra­tion of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma (“social­ist,” Mus­lim”), the Repub­li­cans have craft­ed a polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty that rests on a com­plete repu­di­a­tion of the idea that the oppos­ing par­ty and its fol­low­ers have any legit­i­ma­cy at all.

Why does this work? A series of stud­ies has found that polit­i­cal con­ser­v­a­tives tend toward cer­tain psy­cho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. What are they? Dog­ma­tism, rigid­i­ty and intol­er­ance
 of ambi­gu­i­ty; a need to avoid uncer­tain­ty; sup­port for author­i­tar­i­an­ism; a height­ened sense of threat from oth­ers; and a per­son­al need for struc­ture. How do these qual­i­ties influ­ence polit­i­cal thinking?

Accord­ing to researchers, the two core dimen­sions of con­ser­v­a­tive thought are resis­tance to change and sup­port for inequal­i­ty. These, in turn, are core ele­ments of social intol­er­ance. The need for cer­tain­ty, the need to man­age fear of social change, lead to black-and-white think­ing and an embrace of stereo­types. Which could cer­tain­ly lead to a desire to deride those not like you — whether peo­ple of col­or, LGBT peo­ple or Democ­rats. And, espe­cial­ly since the ear­ly 1990s, Repub­li­can politi­cians and pun­dits have been feed­ing these needs with a sin­gle-mind­ed, uncom­pli­cat­ed, good-vs.-evil world­view that vil­i­fies Democrats.

So now we hate them back. And for good rea­son. Which is too bad. I miss the Fred Lip­pitts of yore and the civ­i­lized dis­course and polit­i­cal accom­plish­ments they made pos­si­ble. And so do mil­lions of total­ly fed-up Americans.

Susan J. Dou­glas is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and a senior edi­tor at In These Times. Her forth­com­ing book is In Our Prime: How Old­er Women Are Rein­vent­ing the Road Ahead..
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