Hating Rightey

Like Daniel Larison I was not entirely persuaded by Arthur Brooks' analysis of liberal hatemongering, which draws on data showing that liberals hate conservatives as much if not more than conservatives hate liberals, and that liberal Bush-hatred is far more intense than right-wing Clinton-hatred was in the late 1990s. Still, the numbers themselves are pretty interesting:

In 2004, the University of Michigan's American National Election Studies (ANES) survey asked about 1,200 American adults to give their thermometer scores of various groups. People in this survey who called themselves "conservative" or "very conservative" did have a fairly low opinion of liberals -- they gave them an average thermometer score of 39. The score that liberals give conservatives: 38. Looking only at people who said they are "extremely conservative" or "extremely liberal," the right gave the left a score of 27; the left gives the right an icy 23. So much for the liberal tolerance edge.

Some might argue that this is simply a reflection of the current political climate, which is influenced by strong feelings about the current occupants of the White House. And sure enough, those on the extreme left give President Bush an average temperature of 15 and Vice President Cheney a 16. Sixty percent of this group gives both men the absolute lowest score: zero.

That's today; now here's similar data from 1998, the height of Clinton Derangement Syndrome on the Right:

... Bill Clinton and Al Gore were hardly popular among conservatives. Still, in the 1998 ANES survey, Messrs. Clinton and Gore both received a perfectly-respectable average temperature of 45 from those who called themselves extremely conservative. While 28% of the far right gave Clinton a temperature of zero, Gore got a zero from just 10%. The bottom line is that there is simply no comparison between the current hatred the extreme left has for Messrs. Bush and Cheney, and the hostility the extreme right had for Messrs. Clinton and Gore in the late 1990s.

In his haste to tar liberals as greater "hatemongers" than conservatives, I think Brooks glides too quickly to the conclusion that intense antipathy of this sort is ipso facto irrational:

Does this refute the stereotype that right-wingers are "haters" while left-wingers are not? Liberals will say that the comparison is unfair, because Mr. Bush is so much worse than Mr. Clinton ever was. Yes, Mr. Clinton may have been imperfect, but Mr. Bush -- whom people on the far left routinely compare to Hitler -- is evil. This of course destroys the liberal stereotype even more eloquently than the data. The very essence of intolerance is to dehumanize the people with whom you disagree by asserting that they are not just wrong, but wicked.

Well, up to a point - but not every liberal (or conservative, for that matter) who thinks that Bush has been vastly worse than Clinton belongs to the "Bushitler" ranks, and there's nothing inherently intolerant about registering intense dislike for a disastrous President. I imagine that I would have spun the dial pretty close to zero for James Buchanan circa 1860, Woodrow Wilson circa 1917, or Lyndon Johnson circa '67 (among others), and I don't think in any of these cases I would have been guilty of "dehumanizing" them.

That said, though, I do think that for smart liberals, the depth of conservative-hatred on the left ought to be at least the cause of some concern, even if they think it's possibly justified in the case of George W. Bush. As I suggested when Jon Chait's big netroots essay came out, there's a risk that the new "movement liberalism," having been forged in the crucible of Bush-hatred, will end up imitating contemporary conservatism's worst habits - which include, among others things, a difficulty engaging with the opposition save through vitriol and stereotype. To see this tendency in action, consider Matt Stoller's response to Barack Obama's expression of (mild, mild) sympathy for Ronald Reagan's 1970s critique of big government.

It is extremely disturbing to hear, not that Obama admires Reagan, but why he does so. Reagan was not a sunny optimist pushing dynamic entrepreneurship, but a savvy politician using a civil rights backlash to catapult conservatives to power. Lots of people don't agree with this, of course, since it doesn't fit a coherent narrative of GOP ascendancy. Masking Reagan's true political underpinning principles is a central goal of the conservative movement ...

if you think, as Obama does, that Reagan's rise to power was premised on a sunny optimism in contrast to an out of control government and a society rife with liberal excess, then you don't understand the conservative movement. Reagan tapped into greed and fear and tribalism, and those are powerful forces. Ignoring that isn't going to make them go away.

I'm on the record expecting an era of liberal dominance in American politics. But there's no surer way to ensure that it's as brief as possible than for liberals to persuade themselves, with Stoller, that Ronald Reagan succeeded because he was e-e-e-vil, and that the entire conservative ascendancy boils down to nothing more that "greed and fear and tribalism" run amok.