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The unsubtle views of partisans

Monday, July 19, 2004

In the wake of Dick Cheney's use on the Senate floor of what Rudyard Kipling described as the favorite noun, verb and adjective of the British soldier, we've been treated to a fresh wave of stories decrying the loss of civility in politics.
"We've become two warring nations," says independent pollster John Zogby. "The same incivility we have been experiencing within Washington in the last decade has spread out across the nation."
Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford agrees: "The discourse is distinctly nastier," he says. "People are seeing each other not as political partisans, but as enemies."
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof laments this situation, while adopting the precise tone of elite liberal condescension that drives conservatives crazy: "It wasn't surprising when the right foamed at the mouth during the Clinton years, for conservatives," he informs us, "have always been quick to detect evil empires. But liberals love subtlety and describe the world in a palette of grays -- yet many have now dropped all nuance about [President Bush]."
Actually, if one considers the worldview of the typical member of the Democratic or Republican base, what's amazing is that political discourse is as polite as it is. I'm not talking about fringe types who think Hillary Clinton murdered Vince Foster, or that the Bush administration has already captured Osama bin Laden: I'm referring to the sort of people who vote in primaries and attend the occasional fund-raiser.
General beliefs
The people who make up the Democratic base believe much or all of the following: The Republican party is controlled by rich white men who will do almost anything to protect their own power and privilege, including making alliances with millions of know-nothing fundamentalist yahoos, who would like nothing better than to install their particularly lurid brand of Christianity as the de facto state religion.
According to this view, the average conservative is a closet racist who hates immigrants, gays, nonsubservient women, and anybody else who doesn't want to roll back the clock to at least 1955. The Iraq war is a cynical fraud, perpetrated by a cabal of opportunists who stole the 2000 presidential election, and who are manipulating the subliterate frat boy who currently occupies the Oval Office.
The other side
The Republican base sees things a bit differently. On this view, the average liberal is an amoral atheist who believes all values are relative, and whose main recreations are promiscuous sex, illegal drugs and hating America. Liberals favor killing unborn children whenever it's convenient to do so, and using other peoples' money to advance their pet causes, which include destroying Western civilization by undermining its basic institutions, such as marriage and the family.
Liberals, by this account, hate God because his word reminds them they are wrong. They oppose the Iraq war because they automatically despise all things American, and nothing is more American than using military might to vanquish evildoers, so that liberty and justice may spread around the world.
The foregoing may sound like a parody, but anyone who has much contact with the most politically active people -- our "engaged" citizens -- can attest that they are quite likely to subscribe to something resembling one of these two views.
Under such conditions, we should be grateful that the politically engaged among us usually limit themselves to screaming at one another on talk radio programs, or to ranting on message boards in the comfortable anonymity of cyberspace.
A truly civil political discourse would require cultivating a different sort of worldview: the kind of view that loves subtlety and describes the world in a palette of grays and that recognizes all views are worthy of respectful consideration, especially this one.
XPaul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado.