I had know about it for some time, but I was first confronted with The Syndrome in 2004. I had penned a column — which in most respects was carefully balanced — that included critical statements of Democratic candidate John Kerry and praised President Bush on some point. The piece did not include any contact information and it was not a publication that included a space for reader comments. The morning it appeared, I received an email from someone I did not know. “You disgust me,” it began, and went on to describe what an idiot I was. I can’t go into greater detail because I did not save the note. Suffice to say, the writer, who had gone to some trouble to find my email address, was incensed that I had anything positive to say about president Bush whatsoever. Indeed, the reader’s ire was driven more by that, than by any criticism I might have leveled at Kerry.

Conservative commentators have for some years now observed a general “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” in which the mere mention of President Bush’s name generates such irrational vitriol that it’s almost funny (until you get to be its target). More recently, we’ve seen a bit of “Palin Derangement Syndrome” and even a smattering of “McCain Derangement Syndrome.” Ordinarily rational friends and acquaintances will simply lose it at the mention of one of these odious figures, and say the most amazing things.

However, these derangement syndromes are not at all the sole province of liberals and Democrats. My conservative friends are just as prone to bouts of insanity. In one generally conservative outlet in which I occasionally run columns, I have observed that if I merely mention Sen. Obama’s name, I am guaranteed to see comments that just go right off the deep end. And, if I want readers to tell me I’m an idiot and to question my motives and patriotism, I need only praise Obama in some slight way — or, just as bad, fail to criticize him sufficiently.

These episodes point to a broad, troubling trend in American politics. We are losing, ever more with each election, the ability to differentiate an opponent from an enemy. The stakes seem to be ratcheted up ever higher and the “grassroots” seem to go from being an electorate to a mob.

I place the lion’s share of the blame for this on the political professional class. These are the people who make their living at manipulating public opinion — political consultants, “party strategists,” and a number of media personalities who trade in invective, ridicule, and fear. Both sides of the aisle are just filthy with them. These folks are good at what they do. They move people — spur them to give, spur them to rallies, spur them to vote. They do it by villifying the other side until they go from “opponent” to “enemy.”

What’s the difference? An opponent is someone I hope to beat — but the integrity of the game is ultimately more important than the outcome. One of us will win and, we will each go our ways.

An enemy, though, is someone who must be vanquished. Facing an “enemy,” it’s kill or be killed.

As this year’s campaign has drawn on, positions have hardened and now most citizens feel it is “very important” that their candidate win. The share of citizens who say this has increased tremendously over just six months ago.

Just about half of the nation will wind up disappointed. What will they do? Will they be able to carry on honorably? Or will they stick “not my president” decals on their bumpers and do a slow burn?

Looking at the aftermath of the last three or four presidential elections, it’s a fair bet that we’ll see the latter. What will it take for us to take the outcome just a little less seriously, so that we can take democracy itself a little more seriously?

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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