How We Talk About Our Opponents Matters

Both parties in the United States talk about the other as the enemy.

President George W. Bush speaks at a memorial ceremony, September 11, 2008
President George W. Bush speaks at a memorial ceremony, September 11, 2008 (US Navy)

Remember when George W. Bush was a fascist?

When he signed the PATRIOT Act and launched the Iraq War, reasonable left-wing Americans voiced reasonable objections. The far left reached for Hitler.

Republicans dismissed this as over the top, because it was. (And it made it easier for them to dismiss reasonable objections as well.) So when the real thing came along, and this time not only the far left but commentators on the center-right warned that Donald Trump had a lot in common with the worst leaders in European history, many Republican voters once again shrugged.

If anything, it made them support Trump more. As one voter told The Atlantic in 2016:

Give people the impression that you will hate them the same or nearly so for voting Jeb Bush as compared to voting for Trump and where is the motivation to be socially acceptable with Jeb?

The left continues to make this mistake — and so does the right.

Firing up conservatives

Hillary Clinton infamously dismissed half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables”. Left-wing denunciations of Republicans, of white, rural and religious voters — no matter how fringe — are amplified by right-wing media, who make their money from firing up conservatives.

There is a reason Fox News would rather talk about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-declared democratic socialist, than Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and the 54 percent of Democrats who want their party to become more moderate; the 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez is the perfect foil for Fox’s target audience of older, white, reactionary men.

Stories such as her plan to restructure the entire American economy under a Green New Deal, or Democratic proposals to nationalize health insurance, or the excesses of the social justice movement, whip up conservatives’ desire to “stick it to the libs” to the point where that matters more to them than getting conservative policy done.

Again, see Trump. Republicans used to be for free trade, against deficit spending, pro-NATO and anti-Russia. Most have completely reversed their positions for the sake of a president who drives the left mad.

Might as well be socialist

There is a similar dynamic on the left. Democrats won’t go so far as to embrace socialism just because the Republicans say they are. But they are becoming less afraid of it.

I warned Republicans against this. If you tell voters that mainstream, center-left policies like a health insurance mandate (Obamacare) and debt-free college are “socialism”, what will you say when actual socialists turn up and argue for nationalizing the health insurance industry and providing not just debt-free but tuition-free college education?

The same, it turns out. But there are differences, just as there are differences between Joe Biden’s policies and Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s.

When Republicans pretend there aren’t, Democrats start to care less about such nuances.

As South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg put it in the last presidential debate:

It’s true that [if] we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialist. Let’s stand up for the right policy, go up there and defend it.

Leaving the center

I don’t want to make the mistake of false equivalence. Republicans have put party over country and moved so far to the right that they now have more in common with the European far right than they do with Britain’s Conservative Party and Germany’s Christian Democrats. Democrats have moved to the left but are still more centrist than European social democrats.

But it’s also true that both parties have moved away from the center, and the way they talk about each other is one of the reasons.