Commentary: Hatred has become a driving force in politics

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LONDON: On a crisp March morning in 2016 I woke up in a friend’s Brooklyn apartment and made my way, copy of The New Yorker in hand, to Peter Pan Donut & Pastry shop, a rare 1950s holdout in gentrified Greenpoint, where waitresses wear mint-green button-down dresses with pink caps and coffee costs $1 including refills.

No sooner had I sat down than a man across the counter started chatting to me – personal life, then politics. He was going to vote for Donald Trump in November’s election, if Mr Trump became the Republican nominee, as was expected.

I was taken aback. This charming man with a strong New York accent, who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012, was not the kind of person I had envisioned as a Trump supporter.

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The old Jewish woman sitting next to him, also an Obama voter, said she didn’t think she would be voting at all. Why, I asked?

Neither of them could stand Hillary Clinton.

It was the first of many such conversations during my two-week trip to both US coasts that spring. An intense hatred of Mrs Clinton that I had not been at all aware of back in the UK was palpable.

I returned from my trip convinced that, despite polls showing she was ahead, this visceral animosity towards her would be enough to hand victory to Mr Trump.

Coronavirus has meant I haven’t had the chance to visit the US in the run-up to next month’s election.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate i

US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in their first 2020 presidential campaign debate on Sep 29, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

But when I asked my friend what she and her husband had made of last month’s presidential debate, she told me that they had not been able to bring themselves to watch it.

Why? Neither of them can stand Trump.

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HATRED A DRIVING FACTOR IN POLITICS

In recent years, hatred has become a driving factor in elections on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the UK, polling has shown that personal dislike of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – deliberately exacerbated by the Conservative party in their campaigning – was a critical factor in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 election win.

During the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, open hatred of EU “red tape”, and an only slightly more covert stirring of hostility towards immigrants, was a key part of the Leave campaigns’ messaging.

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Hatred in politics is, of course, not new. As a young child I remember my Irish father, a devout Catholic, encouraging me to pray for everyone in the world apart from Margaret Thatcher, the leader whose rigid attitude towards the troubles in Northern Ireland caused fury.

I’m sure we weren’t the only family raised to hate Thatcher. But back then, hatred was mostly the lot of the underdog, rather than a powerful political tool deployed by those who end up winning.

The 1979 “Labour isn’t working” Tory political slogan was aimed at inciting negative emotions, but not at provoking venom against a particular individual.

Brexit protest Boris Johnson

Demonstrators hold up placards at a protest against the move to suspend parliament in the final weeks before Brexit outside Downing Street in London on Aug 31, 2019. (Photo: Niklas HALLE’N / AFP)

These days, the ad-hominem “attack ad” designed to stir up feelings of hatred or fear has become commonplace.

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“Something that’s happened in democracies in recent years is the mobilisation around a shared threat,” says William Davies, a political and sociological theorist. 

“The idea that we’re in danger because of ‘that person over there’ is a very powerful rallying trope.”

RISE OF ONLINE IDENTITY POLITICS

It’s all too easy to use the Internet, with its power to agitate, as a scapegoat for this heightened emotional response, but it’s certainly a part of the story.

Extreme positions are rewarded on social media, and that has increased polarisation and encouraged what US political scientists call “negative partisanship”.

The rise of online identity politics has meant a whole range of cultural and social values are now tightly bound together with affiliation to a particular party, in what academic and author Lilliana Mason calls a “demographic mega-identity”, making it acceptable – even morally righteous – for one tribe to openly hate the “other”.

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Exploiting hatred in this way is bad for democracy, and for rational debate. But, as Mr Trump knows, it can be extremely effective.

This time, however, he faces a tougher task: “Sleepy Joe” does not incite the kind of emotion that “Crooked Hillary” did.

And the president, no longer the clownish underdog, now finds himself the greater target of detestation.

The problem for Mr Trump is that his own tactics have come back to bite him. That’s going to make it much harder for him to win.

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