I’m only half joking when I argue that a true sports fan loathes his archrival more than he loves his own team.
Sure, it’s an exaggeration. But one suspects that at least some Boston Red Sox supporters enjoy feasting on New York Yankee futility more than they celebrate their own team’s fourth World Series title in 15 years. (Don’t believe me? You’ve never heard a New England crowd break into a “Yankees suck” chant … at a Pearl Jam concert.)
Within reason, a heated rivalry enhances our love of sporting events. But one nationally recognized pundit is drawing attention to the negative impact in the world of politics from a similar us-versus-them mentality.
“You have an enormous rise in what they call ‘negative partisanship.’” That’s the observation from Jonah Goldberg, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior editor at the conservative publication National Review. Goldberg chatted with Carolina Journal in Chapel Hill, just before an Oct. 29 speech sponsored by the Carolina Liberty Foundation and UNC College Republicans.
“There are millions of people who … the only reason they call themselves Democrats is because they hate Republicans,” Goldberg explained. “And the only reason why millions of people call themselves Republicans is because they hate Democrats. That’s a very tribal way of viewing the world.”
Goldberg assigns the blame to human nature. “Our brains are designed to see people like us — or the people that we form coalitions with — as good, and everybody outside is the dangerous other,” he said. “That’s defining so much of our politics these days. … People say that it’s worth being a jerk so long as the right people are offended.”
Examples emerge on both sides of the partisan divide. “People defend some of the things Donald Trump says or tweets purely on the grounds that liberal tears are delicious,” Goldberg contends. “You see the same phenomenon on the left, with people going after the right — mocking religion, mocking traditionalism — purely because it makes [Vice President] Mike Pence sad. This is a profoundly unhealthy way to think about politics.”
Now is a good time to remind ourselves about the original role of politics. “Go back to Aristotle,” Goldberg said. “It’s supposed to be about persuasion, about convincing someone that their interests are better served by being a member of your coalition than the coalition they’re currently in.”
Goldberg says the conservative movement “got into a cul-de-sac” by ignoring the importance of persuasion and appeals to reason. “Instead we emphasize purity,” he said. “We said that if anybody doesn’t agree with us entirely that they’re a squish or a RINO. Once you start emphasizing purity — on the left or the right — you are necessarily pushing away people who might agree with you on a lot and might be members of your coalition.”
A favorite New Yorker cartoon illustrates Goldberg’s point. “It has two dogs at a bar,” he explains. “They’re drinking martinis. One dog says to the other, ‘You know, it’s not good enough that dogs succeed. Cats must also fail.’ That’s the essence of our tribal politics these days.”
“We care less about winning save as measured by whether it’s making the opposition lose or feel like losers,” Goldberg added. “That has no limiting principle to it, which is why our politics continues to get uglier and uglier. It’s like the junkie who needs to keep upping the purity or the quantity of the dose. We need to constantly mainline more outrage about how terrible the other people are or how unfair they’re being to us.”
Natural tribal tendencies should not prevail. “We understand that a functioning society needs to hold that stuff at bay,” Goldberg said. “The only real way you can hold human nature at bay is by civilizing people, by teaching people right from wrong. And when you don’t do that, human nature comes rushing back in. That’s the real source of corruption in life.”
One key obstacle: Civilizing forces have weakened in the United States and across the West. “When you teach people on a mass scale that they are the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong — that they are their own priests — it becomes much more difficult to get people to have a sense of what is good for the greater good or what is simply right and wrong beyond a utilitarian calculus. … As a culture, that system has broken down. It’s broken down because these institutions are no longer able to do their job, starting with the family.”
Despite his complaints, Goldberg maintains a degree of optimism. “We’re going to learn some lessons from the Obama years and from the Trump years,” he said. “We have a choice to act upon those lessons or to compound the problems that led us that way. One of the great things about liberal democratic capitalism is its capacity for self-correction. I still think we have that.”
One hopes that Goldberg’s optimism bears fruit.
It hurts no one when a Michigan fan lustily cheers a loss for my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes. We all lose when we treat political divisions with the same degree of red-hot hatred.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.