Why hatred surrounding presidential elections grows

Posted: Oct 30, 2003 12:00 AM

"Likeable." I once told Texas journalism students that they should never use so subjective an adjective. I asked, "Can you name a single person who is likeable to everyone?"

One student in 1998 replied, "George W. Bush" -- and that year he was close to being right. Not only did Gov. Bush win re-election with 70 percent of the vote, but most of the three out of 10 who voted Democratic had nice things to say about him. He got along so well with the Democratic-majority Texas legislature that its leading power broker, the late Bob Bullock, backed Bush's run for the presidency in 2000.

When TeamBush moved to Washington in 2001, crooning about bipartisanship, it hoped to continue dancing the Texas two-step. But the D.C. cynics who muttered about romantic illusions proved to be right: The center did not hold, and the rest is hysteria.

Look at what liberals are now saying about the man who broke my ban on "likeable." Jonathan Chait, senior editor of The New Republic, wrote recently: "I hate President George W. Bush. ... I hate the way he talks -- blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudo-populist twang. I even hate the things that everybody seems to like about him."

Chait, insisting that "there seem to be quite a few of us Bush haters," cited one pollster's report that Bush hatred is "as strong as anything I've experienced in 25 years now of polling." Conservative columnist Robert Novak agreed that we are now seeing "hatred ... that I have never seen in 44 years of campaign watching."

We could talk about the specific reasons for Bush hatred, and about the years of Clinton hatred, Reagan hatred, Nixon hatred and Johnson hatred, but I'd rather draw our attention to two underlying causes.

First, we have built a national political system with stakes so high that those wrapped up in it hate the thought of losing. In this country, we used to have many kinds of government affecting our lives. We were governed not only by politicians but by leaders in business, education, philanthropy and other spheres of interest. They could make their decisions largely free from governmental control.

The first 20th century president to inspire big-time hatred was Franklin Roosevelt, who began our national movement to a winner-take-all system. Now, many see their future happiness as dependent on who's in charge in Washington. A man with many female friends is unlikely to become despondent if one of them marries someone else. A man who believes that his happiness depends on marrying one particular woman may hate a successful rival suitor.

Now, presidents often appoint judges who twist the Constitution. Presidents issue executive orders that turn previous legislation upside down. Presidents effectively overrule actions of governors and mayors. Overarching power generates not just dislike but hatred. To improve the atmospherics of public life, we need to decentralize, returning authority whenever possible to localities and private citizens.

A second reason for the growth in political hatred is our decreased willingness to see God's providence in election outcomes. Nineteenth century political campaigns tended to be hard-fought, but when they ended the disappointed losers often waxed theological about the results: "God's will be done." When feelings ran so high that such reconciliation did not occur, the results could be dire: The Civil War is Exhibition A.

I would not have liked it had Al Gore won in 2000, but had that happened I would have stilled my disappointment (as I did following Bill Clinton's successes) with the thought that God still has the whole world in His hands. Without that faith, and with the concentration of power in Washington, every election may look like Armageddon, and every winner may look, to the disappointed losers, like Satan enthroned.