Indeed, among most Americans, Bush doesn't either. Because surveys didn't ask, we don't know how many Americans hated past presidents. But now the question is being asked, and the answers show that only a small minority -- millions, to be sure -- claim to hate Bush. One poll in December found that 3 percent did. The hating may have been slightly higher in the Clinton presidency, because the same poll asked respondents whether they now hate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and 5 percent said they did. But the central conclusion is striking: Most Americans don't see themselves as haters.
If "hate" were used loosely (as in, say, "kids hate spinach"), the word choice would be harmless. But people who claim to hate really mean it, and that's serious. It signifies that you've gone beyond discussion, compromise or even (to some extent) coexistence. The differences are too basic to be bridged. Genuine political hatred is usually reserved for true tyrants, whose unspeakable acts of brutality justify nothing less.
More than the language is butchered. Once disagreement turns into self-proclaimed hate, it becomes blinding. You can see only one all-encompassing truth, which is your villain's deceit, stupidity, selfishness or evil. This was true of Clinton haters, and it's increasingly true of Bush haters. A small army of pundits and talking heads has now devoted itself to one story: the sins of Bush, Cheney and their supporters. They ruined the economy with massive tax cuts and budget deficits; the Iraq war was an excuse for corporate profiteering; their arrogance alienated foreign allies.
All ambiguity vanishes. For example: The economy is recovering, stimulated in part by huge budget deficits; and many traditional allies of the United States like having Bush as a political foil to excuse them from costly and unpopular commitments.
In the end, Bush hating says more about the haters than the hated -- and here, too, the parallels with Clinton are strong. This hatred embodies much fear and insecurity. The anti-Clinton fanatics hated him not simply because he occasionally lied, committed adultery or exhibited an air of intellectual superiority. What really infuriated them was that he kept succeeding -- he won reelection, his approval ratings stayed high -- and that diminished their standing. If Clinton was approved, they must be disapproved.
Ditto for Bush. If he succeeded less, he'd be hated less. His fiercest detractors don't loathe him merely because they think he's mediocre, hypocritical and simplistic. What they truly resent is that his popularity suggests that the country might be more like him than it is like them. They fear he's exiling them politically. On one level, their embrace of hatred aims to make others share their outrage; but on another level, it's a self-indulgent declaration of moral superiority -- something that makes them feel better about themselves. Either way, it represents another dreary chapter in the continuing coarsening of public discourse.
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Robert Samuelson has an intelligent column about Bush hatred. His point is that it is only a very small minority of people who truly hate Bush. But, they're allowing their visceral reactions to Bush color their political good sense.
Posted by Betsy Newmark at 9:38 AM