December 28, 2003
Using the Other Guy's Vitriol to Win Votes
HE anger wars were officially launched last July, when Ed Gillespie gave his first speech as chairman of the Republican National Committee. The Democrats, he said, "serve up raw emotion" in place of solutions, "and that emotion is anger." Mr. Gillespie has been echoing that theme ever since. Last month, he described the Democrats as the party of "protests, pessimism and political hate speech."
As alliterative animadversions go, the line may not be in a league with " nattering nabobs of negativism," Vice President Spiro T. Agnew's dismissal of the critics of another Republican administration caught up in a controversial war. But it signals a similar intention to make the Democrats' mood itself an issue in the coming campaign, and to redefine the language of political emotion in the bargain.
Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Bush for President campaign, sent out a fund-raising letter last week warning that the president is under "venomous assault from rage-filled Democrats," even as the campaign was releasing a new ad called "When Angry Democrats Attack."
"Tired of the pessimism and angry protests?" it asks, over clips of Representative Richard A. Gephardt and Senator John Kerry harshly criticizing the president, along with one of Howard Dean growling "Thank you very much," implying that the governor's dyspepsia extends even to his expressions of gratitude.
Granted, the Democratic base really is angry, and Governor Dean owes his front-runner status to his success in mobilizing that feeling. . The party's activists are still mad about how President Bush came by his job and even madder about what he's done with it since - an anger that has spilled over into an antipathy for the man himself.
Still, it would be hard to argue that the Democrats are any more hostile toward Mr. Bush than the Republicans have been toward the Clintons or, for that matter, that Republicans have become any more amiable since they assumed control of the White House and both houses of Congress. The only thing that has changed is that now the left is expressing itself with the same pugnacity as the right, Democrats say. If the tone comes out sounding angry in Democrats and merely aggressive in Republicans, that's because of the discrepancies in power between the two, not because of any temperamental difference between the sides.
But as the Republicans tell the story, the Democrats' animosity is less a question of being mad as hell than of having anger issues. Conservative commentators analyze the Democrats' problems in therapeutic terms that they would once have derided as Marin County psychobabble.
Charles Krauthammer talks about "the unhinging of the Democratic Party," as it passes from "from partisanship to pathology," and David Brooks describes Democrats as "caught up in their own victimization." In one of his last columns before his death, Robert L. Bartley of The Wall Street Journal located the "subconscious roots'' of Democrats' anger in a crisis of self-identity, compounded by "inner doubts about their own moral position" after the Clinton scandals.
Hence the picture of the Democrats pitched into a fever of self-destructive rancor, as disdain for Mr. Bush gives way to "a hatred that is near pathological," in Mr. Krauthammer's words. Or, as Mr. Gillespie puts it, the Democrats have demeaned the presidency with "political hate speech" - "harsh, bitter personal attacks . . . unprecedented in the history of presidential politics."
That's a stretch even by accelerated modern standards of political forgetfulness. Most epithets that Mr. Gillespie has denounced as political hate speech - "liar," "phony," "hypocrite" - were common enough in Republican mouths during the Clinton years. And while it's certainly severe to describe Mr. Bush as "a miserable failure," it's hard to see how it demeans the presidency any more than calling the just-fired Jim Fassel a miserable failure demeans the position of head coach of the New York Giants.
Most of that can be excused as the routine partisan ebullience that you expect from someone in Mr. Gillespie's position. What's notable is the way the Republicans have appropriated "hate speech" to describe the Democrats' attacks on Mr. Bush. That's another example of the way political language has tended to drift from left to right over recent decades.
Conservatives use "hate speech" the way they use words like "diversity" and "bias," in the hope that the moral valence that the terms acquired in the context of civil rights will persist when the words are applied to partisan divisions, even if their meanings are altered in the process.
Originally, "hate speech" referred to speech that disparaged social groups on the basis of race, sex, religion and the like - an accusation that was more often leveled at conservatives than by them. By that definition, the mere expression of a personal antipathy to the president would hardly count as hate speech, no more than vandalizing a former spouse's car would count as a hate crime.
But the association of "hate" with unacceptable forms of intolerance and bigotry tends to color the other uses of the word as well; "political hate speech" conveys the sense of dark and irrational passions that should be ruled out of political discourse. To a certain extent that's merely an accident of English, which happens to use the same word for social pathologies like racism and anti-Semitism and for the personal antagonisms that make up half the drama of high-school life - or, for that matter, for a simple antipathy to spinach.
If you said merely that a lot of Democrats detest Bush, as the French would put it, it would be hard to summon up the same sense of alarm about their attacks on him.
Even so, it's striking how the language of polarization has shifted over the past 30 years. In the early 1970's, when Vice President Agnew went on his alliterative tear, opponents could only be crudely demonized as effete snobs or as wild-eyed hippies; in the age of Dr. Phil it is more effective to infantilize them - we'll talk about it when they're less angry.
You wonder how Harry S. Truman would have made out if "anger management" had been part of the language back then.
Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford linguist, is heard regularly on NPR's "Fresh Air'' and is the author of "The Way We Talk Now.''