The Destructiveness of Demonization, On View Now

This piece appeared as an op/ed in newspapers in VA-06 in November, 2023.


The nation is paying a price right now for the way one side of the American electorate has been led to see the other side. Baby-killers. Grooming. Sex-trafficking. Depraved haters of America.

(In the Shenandoah Valley where I live, it has become clear in recent years that a good many on the Republican side regard “Democrat” as a very dirty word. Woman driving a car with the wrong bumper sticker? The driver of the pick-up gives her the finger.)

One has seen – in the Republican base — this view of “librels” as contemptible, even Evil, rising over the past generation.

Back in the 1990s, on the radio, I occasionally told my mostly conservative audience that the people in the liberal world that I knew were just as good human beings – by any reasonable standard of assessment – as people in the conservative world. (I was then in an unusually good position to know both worlds.)

Back then, conservatives found such a notion challenging, but they could entertain the idea. It was a time when – in the Republican base – the image of the other side had not been so warped by demonization. And Republicans in Congress didn’t put themselves in political peril by working with Democrats.

Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neal were famously friends, even as they often were on different sides on the issues. But the Spirit of Reagan wasn’t into demonizing like the Spirit of today’s Republican World.

Thirty years of demonizing the Democrats has made it politically dangerous for elected Republicans to treat Democrats the way the two parties treated each other in that earlier era. Treating Democrats as people with whom some mutual respect is possible, and whom one regards as “fellow Americans,” now can imperil a Republican’s political career.

This year, some of the destructive effects of that demonization have been on display.

Because the Republican majority in the House is so narrow, and because a part of that majority is glad to play a wrecking ball, what the nation needs for the House to do cannot be accomplished by Republican votes alone.

The necessary measures could get big majorities, if members from both parties were allowed to vote on them. But the Republicans’ fear of working with the demonized Democrats has repeatedly brought the nation to crisis.

One such crisis this year was averted at the last moment when most of the Republicans joined forces with the Democrats to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on its debt and then later to avoid a government shutdown.

But that last bit of bi-partisanship cost McCarthy his Speakership. And now, once again, with the need on Friday to fund the government, the well-being of the nation is threatened by that same ugly dynamic that forbids cooperation with the long-demonized “other side.”

Will the new Speaker – Mike McCarthy, who seems aligned ideologically with the more extreme element – will do what the nation needs, which involves a bipartisanship that demonization has rendered forbidden as tainted with evil? Or will he insist on things that shut the government down?

A Party with more integrity and political courage than the current Republican Party could have avoided their whole Speaker Fiasco back in January.

While Kevin McCarthy was selling his soul to the craziest and most destructive wing of his Party, the bulk of the Republicans could have threatened to elect a Speaker who’d make the House functional, by side-lining the crazies – with their destructive impulses – and working in a bi-partisan way to get things done that the nation needs and that a majority of the members want to do.

But back in January, the Republican Members took the “safe” strategy of staying away from the demonized Democrats. Which made the whole Republican House hostage to their craziest members.

But while that strategy was “safe” for them individually, it has clearly been destructive not only for the nation but for their Party as well, because the Republicans’ conduct in the House – the only part of the government that the Republicans now control – has discredited the party. Not only engaging in ludicrous political stunts (like impeaching a Democratic President when even their own witnesses testify that there’s no evidence of any wrong-doing by Joe Biden), but also refusing to act like a responsible party by keeping the government open, paying the nation’s bills, and serving our national interest by keeping our ally, the Ukrainians, well-armed.

Will this destructiveness lead this week to a government shutdown?

It wouldn’t have to be. A big bi-partisan majority would vote for a measure that would pass the Senate and be signed by the President. That would be our government acting as it should, as an instrument that serves the American people.

All this shows that this demonization of half of America by the other half is one part of the larger attack on American Democracy. “The will of the people” cannot express itself because, at one level on half the citizens feel like giving the other half the finger, while the same demonization makes it impossible for the frightened Republicans in the House to join forces with Democrats to accomplished what the American people would want done.

When the power of the people canceled out, all sorts of dark forces can step in to achieve their dark purposes.

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