Polarization Gets Personal

Wednesday evening my wife and I were leaving the Mall when she noticed a piece of paper under our windshield wiper. My first thought was that it was a flier of some sort. Mall security frowns on this practice, but occasionally a daring leafleteer slips under their radar. Deb retrieved the paper, a hand-printed note, all in capitals: “DO YOU HATE OSAMA BIN LADEN AS MUCH AS YOU HATE GEORGE W. BUSH? I WONDER ...”

It seemed to be a response to our bumper stickers, which I had never considered hateful. One says simply “Kerry” and the other has an American flag next to the slogan: “Peace is Patriotic”. (Our other car -- miles away that night -- is more radical, but still not a hate-mobile. Its stickers say “Regime Change Begins at Home” and “We’re making enemies faster than we can kill them.”)

I glanced around to see if I could spot anyone watching us, or some nearby Bush-sticker that might identify our anonymous correspondent. But I didn’t see any likely candidates. And what if I had? Would I start a confrontation? Leave my own note? I had gotten into the car with the intention of driving home, and nothing was stopping me from carrying out that plan. So I did.

A lot has been written about the hostile tone of this year’s presidential campaign. The ads went negative early on, and some -- like the Swift Boat Veterans’ attack on Kerry’s Vietnam service -- are more scurrilous than I can remember from previous elections. But I haven’t seen much discussion of how this polarization filters down to the masses and shows up in everyday life.

My personal experience says that it does. I’ve had political bumper stickers on my cars in previous campaigns -- when I was a kid my parents’ car was covered with them -- but I don’t remember getting negative responses from strangers before. This year it happens regularly and seems to be escalating. The first incident was a few weeks ago when a guy waved a Bush/Cheney baseball hat at me as he whizzed past on the highway. I was surprised, but interpreted the gesture as friendly rivalry -- a Yankees/Red Sox sort of thing. Last week a driver made a point of holding his nose as he passed me, which seemed a little more hostile.

And now we’re getting anonymous notes. The election is still nearly two months away, so I have to wonder what comes next. Vandalism?

Less threatening (but equally ominous in their own way) are all the positive responses we’re getting from other cars with Kerry stickers. (The most enthusiastic came on a Pennsylvania interstate, from a car sporting exactly the same two stickers we have.) I don’t remember that happening in previous years, either. If the polls are right and more-or-less half the country backs John Kerry, why should Kerry supporters feel some tight bond with me? Maybe they’re getting hostile responses too. Displaying a bumper sticker didn’t used to be an act of courage, but maybe this year it is.

Last winter, after President Bush made a speech in Manchester, I wrote a letter to the Union Leader about their slanted coverage of the protesters outside the hall. I’m a frequent letter-writer. I’ve gotten dozens of them published in a variety of newspapers and magazines. No one had ever sent written responses to my home before, but this time two people did: one overtly hostile and the other ... I think she meant well. She urged me to forsake my liberal ways, come to her church, and learn the Truth. (I have my own church, so I went there instead.)

What I find most disturbing in these notes is their familiarity. The writers assume they know all about me. “Kerry” and “Peace is Patriotic” are enough to cast me as someone who hates our president more than those who killed thousands of our countrymen. My presence at a political demonstration marks me as someone who needs to come to Jesus.

Where do people get these ideas?

From the conservative media. One consistent theme runs through Fox News, the Washington Times, and various other conservative mouthpieces: No one opposes this administration for rational reasons. Anyone who objects to the president’s policies is a Bush-hater, and probably hates America as well.

I watched Bill O’Reily interview Ben Affleck at the Democratic convention. His first question wasn’t about Iraq, the economy, Ben’s next movie, or even J-Lo. It was: “Do you hate George Bush?” When Democrats held a fund-raiser in July, they were accused of holding a “hatefest” because they told jokes and sang songs about the President -- pretty standard fund-raiser fare for either party.

In his August 31 column, conservative pundit Cal Thomas simply assumed that liberals are Bush-haters and went on to explain why. It’s because Bush has convictions, and liberal philosophy “opposes the concept of objective truth.” Really? But wait, there’s more: “Liberals fear increased wealth, because it leads to less dependence on government and, thus, less need for them.” I never knew that! And: “The third and perhaps most important reason Bush is hated is his faith, which is genuine.”

I had no idea I was such a disgusting person. No wonder the lady who read my letter in the Union Leader thought I needed Jesus.

The Bush-Hater-in-Chief, of course, is Michael Moore. His mere presence in the media booth of the Republican convention caused such a storm of protest that John McCain had to acknowledge it from the podium. (By contrast, conservative commentator Joe Scarborough anchored MSNBC’s coverage of the Democratic convention without much objection at all.) To listen to Fox News, you would imagine that Moore wakes up each morning foaming at the mouth, barely able to string two sentences together without launching a Bush-hating diatribe.

I have yet to see any evidence for this portrait of the archetypal Bush-hater. I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 twice and heard Moore speak to a partisan crowd in Manchester in the summer of 2003. Far from whipping us up into a hateful frenzy, Moore spoke calmly and forgivingly. (As he usually does. Has anyone ever heard Moore raise his voice? Put any clip of Michael Moore on one side of a split screen and run Zell Miller’s Republican convention keynote speech on the other. Who is the hater?) He told us that as time went on, people would start to change their minds about the Iraq War, and that we needed to give them room to change. “It’s hard for people to admit they were wrong,” he said, “so we need to make it as easy for them as we can.”

There’s got to be some powerful hate behind words like that.

The image of liberals as Bush-haters justifies conservatives taking revenge on us. Radio stations dropped the Dixie Chicks after one Chick expressed her shame in being from the same state as President Bush. Whoopi Goldberg lost her Slim-Fast endorsements after telling an off-color Bush joke at the afore-mentioned “hatefest”. And it’s not just celebrities who suffer reprisals: Glen Hiller lost his job as a graphic designer because he heckled President Bush at a campaign rally in August. Nichole and Jeff Rank were arrested on the Fourth of July for trespassing. Their crime? They wore anti-Bush t-shirts to a presidential appearance in Charleston, West Virginia.

It’s easy to blame the media. But ultimately the buck has to stop where Harry Truman said it should: in the Oval Office. The tone has been set from the top, by the way the Bush administration has treated its own defectors. To hear them tell it, no person of conscience has ever turned against a Bush policy.

Bush’s former terrorism czar Richard Clarke was just trying to sell books when he said that Bush had neglected terrorism prior to 9/11. Dick Cheney suggested Clarke held a personal grudge against Condoleezza Rice or was bitter that he didn’t have a more prominent position in the administration. When Bush’s former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill reported that Bush was planning the Iraq War from the moment he took office, Republican Congressman Bob Ney said that O’Neill was “as bitter as he was ineffective when he served as treasury secretary.” When retiring Republican Congressman Doug Bereuter, vice-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the Iraq War was a mistake, other Republican congressmen described him as “very bitter” that he had been passed over for the chairmanship.

In the administration’s view, people only turn against them for mean personal reasons, never because they have an honest change of heart or observe new facts. While this response may be good public relations, it’s very bad democracy. Democracy requires that people be able to disagree with civility and work out rational compromises. It can’t long survive in an environment that pits my haters against your haters. When the reasonable center fails, you have Weimar Germany, where politics devolved into a street fight between the Nazis on the right and the Communists on the left.

John McCain nailed it in his convention speech: “Let us argue our differences. But remember we are not enemies.”

I have no idea how this situation looks from the other side. Maybe all those people with Bush stickers are receiving their own anonymous notes and hostile gestures. Maybe somewhere people are boycotting Arnold Schwartzenegger movies and firing supporters of the President. I haven’t heard about it, but you never know.

Honestly, I hope not. Because I believe in my views. I believe that if people take the time to think calmly and rationally about this election, the majority will agree with me. Nothing that pushes us further down the Weimar Road does me any good.

I received my note on the same day that the Boston Globe raised new accusations about Bush’s National Guard service, and a new 527 group aired a commercial in which members of his unit say they never saw him. Headlines that morning announced that the 1000th American had died in Iraq. Democratic Senator Bob Graham was claiming that Bush covered up Saudi Arabia’s involvement in 9/11, and there were rumors of a gossipy new Kitty Kelley book about the Bushes. Maybe my anonymous correspondent had been pushed too far that day. Maybe my Kerry sticker told him that it was all my fault.

But I don’t know, because I never saw him and never spoke to him. A voice in my head keeps saying that I know everything I’ll ever need to know about people like him. But I’m resisting that voice, and I advise you to do the same. That way lies madness.

Doug Muder

9 September 2004

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