Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 4, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THOSE BUSH HATING DEMOCRATS....Since everyone else has been chatting about this, I feel sort of compelled to weigh in on the topic of the day: are today's Bush-hating Democrats the equivalent of the Clinton-hating Republicans of the 90s? And is their overall effect positive or negative?

Let's take a look at Clinton first. For all the trees that have been felled examining the phenomenon of Clinton-hatred, the underlying cause seems pretty simple: Bill Clinton was a philandering, pot smoking, draft-dodging, slick talking, crypto-socialist child of the sexual revolution who was married to a ball-busting, man-hating feminist. If this is how you viewed him and a lot of people did what's not to hate?

The depth of the Clinton hatred is best captured, I think, in two metrics: the weirdness of the conspiracy theories that swirled around him and the prevalence with which they were accepted:

  • Weirdness: what can you say about this? Hillary Clinton ordered a mob hit on Vince Foster. Bill Clinton was a big time coke dealer in Arkansas. People near the Clintons had a tendency to die mysteriously. On a scale of 1 to 10, these things rank a solid 10.

  • Prevalence: This is harder to gauge, but I'd guess that a solid 15-20% of the country believed this stuff. These are the people who hated Clinton so virulently that they truly believed he had one of his own aides rubbed out.

Compared to that, Bush hatred seems rather tepid, doesn't it? Of course there are lots of Democrats who can't stand the guy, but saying that Bush lied about WMD or that he invaded Iraq to get his hands on their oil may be extreme, but it's not pathological. The most tin-foil-hattish conspiracy about Bush that I can come up with is from the folks who say that he's going to cancel the 2004 elections and declare martial law. That's wingnut territory, but it probably seems plausible to little more than 1% of the country.

Basically, then, I think the Clinton haters vs. Bush haters comparison breaks down because the idea that Democrats are being swept up in a tide of 1990s-style psychosis is overblown. But if that's so, why is the idea getting so much attention?

Surprise! I think this is something that finally the blogosphere can legitimately take a lot of credit (or perhaps blame) for. The blogosphere tends to attract people with strong opinions, people at the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum, and as the internet has long done people who enjoy flame wars. So the blogosphere is full of trash talking about Bush and comment threads can degenerate faster than a barroom brawl. If you spend much time on the net and it's the fad of the moment for journalists you could easily be convinced that Democrats are about to leap off a cliff.

Well, maybe they are. But before you become too convinced of this, you might want to clear your head and swear off blogs for a week or two. Total political blog readership in America is probably on the order of a quarter million people at most. Trying to divine a social trend based on a loud, extreme, self-selected group that accounts for less than a tenth of a percent of the population is pretty dangerous.

Bottom line: there's a kernel of truth to the Bush hatred meme, but only a kernel. Democrats, while they should be careful not to get carried away into thinking that the country is hankering for the second coming of FDR, need to harness the anger of their base, not repress it. If it's channeled properly, raw emotion can be a powerful political weapon.

POSTSCRIPT: Is raw emotion a powerful political weapon? Dan Drezner doesn't buy it:

Clinton-hating did not serve the Republicans well. Yes, the GOP took both houses of Congress in 1994, but that had more to do with the combination of low voter turnout, the Contract with America, and the Clinton administration's early missteps than efforts to make Clinton look illegitimate. In 1996 and 1998, the Republican encouragement of the anti-Clinton hysteria achieved less than zero in terms of electoral results.

I'm sorry, but I have to laugh at this. Clinton paranoia started well before 1994, and Newt Gingrich's angry message was precisely what caused the Republican landslide that year. And while 1996 and 1998 were pretty flat, Republicans today control the presidency, the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, the majority of the states, and the federal judiciary. Sure it's by slim margins, but does a Republican have to be elected pope before we can say that their anger has indeed delivered them pretty good electoral results?

Kevin Drum 5:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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