Politics of Animus

Politics can be a very personal affair. Although passions ought to be directed towards policies and goals, sometimes those feelings become focused on an individual politician or political party. I want to be careful here to differentiate between the sort of negative view that partisans of either party have towards each other, which I find to be similar to the passions surrounding the Sox-Yankees or Celtics-Lakers rivalries, and an intense personal dislike.

I have been on both sides of the Republican-Democrat divide, in addition to some pretty heated non-partisan divides. I cannot recall a time where I ever felt a pure pathological hatred towards those on the other side. (I do make some exception for the previous administration.) Generally, I have thought their positions wrong, maybe even profoundly wrong and without a shred of merit. Nevertheless, absent some deep personal connection, I simply do not know them well enough to determine if they are good or bad individuals. Simply put, being wrong does not make someone bad.

But, as alluded to above, even the most nonjudgmental person can become inflamed with a passion that leads to hatred. Though it’s likely always existed in our politics, it seemed to have gotten much more pronounced over the Clinton and Bush II administrations and now into the Obama presidency. A not insignificant number of people truly felt/feel a pure pathological hatred towards these people.

Aside from the general public, though, there are other politicians whose behavior is driven by a sense of personal animus. Perhaps the two most prominent individuals are Senators McCain and Lieberman. After his 2000 primary defeat, McCain seemed to be driven, in at least some measure, by his deep hatred for George W. Bush. McCain seemed to revel in tweaking the administration by taking “mavericky” positions on tax cuts and torture. It’s difficult for me to make the normative statement that this was inherently bad. In fact, this hatred caused McCain to take positions that I believe were ultimately correct. But is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons still good? (It should be noted that McCain’s animus took a back seat to his desire for the GOP nomination in 2008 and, post 2004, he was quite a bit less “mavericky.”)

A more recent example is “Holy” Joe Lieberman. His 2006 primary defeat by Ned Lamont certainly left him with quite a bit of animus towards the Democratic Party writ large. In matters large and small, Lieberman has done his best to annoy and thwart the Democratic leadership in the Senate. But, after Obama beat his good friend McCain, Lieberman seemed to focus more on sidetracking the President than Harry Reid (though he obviously does that, too). It is quite obvious that Lieberman takes great personal pleasure in screwing the administration solely for the sake of doing it.

The problem with this type of politics is that it places the particular legislator’s personal animus above ideological principles, party loyalty and the good of his/her constituents. In other words, it is objectively bad for democracy. A democracy may survive having a small number of the general public driven by animus, but it cannot flourish if its highest levels of state are controlled by such small people.


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