Not long ago I was walking toward an airport departure gate when a man approached me.
"Are you Robert Reich?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"You're a Commie dirtbag." (He actually used a variant of that noun, one that can't be printed here.)
"I'm sorry?" I thought I had misunderstood him.
"You're a Commie dirtbag."
My mind raced through several possibilities. Was I in danger? That seemed doubtful. He was well-dressed and had a briefcase in one hand. He couldn't have gotten through the checkpoint with a knife or gun. Should I just walk away? Probably. But what if he followed me? Regardless, why should I let him get away with insulting me?
I decided to respond, as civilly as I could: "You're wrong. Where did you get your information?"
"Fox News. Bill O'Reilly says you're a Communist."
A year or so ago Bill O'Reilly did say on his Fox News show that I was a Communist. I couldn't imagine what I'd done to provoke his ire except to appear on several TV shows arguing for higher taxes on the wealthy, which hardly qualified me as a Communist. Nor am I exactly a revolutionary. I served in Bill Clinton's cabinet. My first full-time job in Washington was in the Ford administration, working for Robert H. Bork at the Justice Department.
"Don't believe everything you hear on Fox News," I said. The man walked away, still irritated.
It's rare that I'm accosted and insulted by strangers, but I do receive vitriolic e-mails and angry Facebook posts. On the Internet and on TV shows, name-calling substitutes for argument, and ad hominem attack for reason.
Scholars who track these things say the partisan divide is sharper today than it has been in almost a century. The typical Republican agrees with the typical Democrat on almost no major issue. If you haven't noticed, Congress is in complete gridlock.
At the same time, polls show Americans to be more contemptuous and less trusting of major institutions: government, big business, unions, Wall Street, the media.
I'm 67 and have lived through some angry times: Joseph R. McCarthy's witch hunts of the 1950s, the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam protests in the 1960s, Watergate and its aftermath in the 1970s. But I don't recall the degree of generalized bile that seems to have gripped the nation in recent years.
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