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Mutual Contempt: A Portrait of Polarized America

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Over the months, I've occasionally suggested that some of the people who have supported the Bushites are not altogether contemptible and evil people.

For example, in my call for a "prophetic social movement," I said that we need to reach out to some of the decent people who have been "seduced" by the Bushites, "for if these good people can be helped to see that these emperors have no moral clothes, they will withdraw their support." (At

In a subsequent piece to explain how the defects in the seduced play a role in their own seduction, I posed the puzzle in terms of "how it is that a disproportionate number of the most remarkably decent people I know voted to re-elect a president whose administration has been remarkable precisely for its lack of such decency."

And most recently, I made an offhand (even parenthetical) remark to the effect that some good people subscribe to a conservative political ideology.

I wouldn't think this would be so bold or controversial a position to take, but every time I say anything along these lines there are some who come forward to pound me. Or more to the point, they've come forward to denounce in unequivocal terms the people whose redeeming virtues I've asserted.

"These people are scum," some of these respondents assert. "Their religious beliefs are worthy of nothing but scorn. Their political values are contemptible. They deserve no respect or regard of any kind."

These denunciations ring a bell for me. I've heard such things not so long ago, but with an interesting twist.

I do a monthly radio show to an area of Virginia where I lived for a decade up until 2002. Virginia's a conservative state, and this area is more conservative than most of the rest of the state. For the decade I lived there, I discussed hot-button political and moral controversies, trying to undo the damage done to the consciousness of much of that audience by demagogues and panderers like Rush Limbaugh. By the time I left, I had the feeling that I'd accomplished something.

But of course with the coming of the Bushites, the forces of rationality and open-mindedness and mutual respect were over-whelmed by the deliberate manipulations of Rovian propagandists, sowing hate and polarization and irrational patterns of thought.

In the face of that, I used one of my monthly radio shows to poses this question for discussion: "I'd like to ask you conservatives about how you regard liberals. [To them, "liberal" includes everything to the left.] To what extent do you regard them as your fellow citizens, with a legitimate point of view, whose concerns and values deserve to be taken into account in determining the destiny of America? And to what extent do you regard them as your enemies, who are so evil or misguided that their views should be disregarded and who should be vanquished as thoroughly as possible and rendered irrelevant to our collective decisions as a nation?"

In the first hour of this two-hour show, there were plenty of right-wingers willing to come forward and denounce liberals without reservation. "Criminal" was one of the words used to describe liberals. Others included "ignorant" and "irresponsible" and "selfish."

The right-wingers' attacks on "liberals" had very much the same tone and flavor as the left-wingers' attacks on conservatives evoked whenever I've acknowledged any virtues among the people on the other side of our divided nation.

Which leads me to ask these questions:

What do you think happens to a country like ours when it's divided into two polarized camps that see each other in terms of such mutual contempt?

Do you think that a democracy can function well in such a polarized social/cultural/political environment?

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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