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The politics of hate

If democracy consists in the recognition and organization of individual liberty, how can we justify the portrayal of democratic life as a "cultural war?"

The politics of hate is all around us. In the United States, the Tea Party's hatred for Obama and everything he stands for, equating the introduction of (privately operated) healthcare insurance to an existential threat to the American way of life, has brought the administration to a standstill and the country close to economic collapse. In Russia the Putin regime, which normally focuses its rhetoric on the jihadist threat and US unilateralism, is stirring up hatred against gays, prohibiting what it calls "homosexual propaganda." In Britain the extremists of the UK Independence Party are calling for the deportation not only of non-European immigrants, but of citizens of the countries whose EU membership London has always supported. And in the rest of Europe - Hungary, Greece, Finland, France and, needless to say, Spain - those who specialize in hate are regrouping with a view to profiting from the weakness of national and European institutions, and to harvest votes with messages based on ethnicity, poverty, ignorance and the supposed cultural inferiority of others.

So much irrationality breeds perplexity. In her book The Trouble with Islam Today, Irshad Manji, an Islamic feminist and lesbian activist who lives in Canada, calls on Allah in these terms: "If you are the creator of all things, why did you create me different, and then order everyone to hate me?" A question that translates well from religion to the center of today's democratic politics. If democracy consists precisely in the recognition and organization of individual liberty, how then can we justify the portrayal of democratic life as a "cultural war?"

Differences over identity and religion are so useful; they polarize electorates, moving them away from the center, rendering voters faithful to the extremes

The hatred that the Tea Party professes for the Democrats, a profoundly un-American hatred, goes back to Pat Buchanan's speech to the Republican convention in 1992. The Republican presidential nomination was won by George Bush Sr, but Buchanan got three million votes in the primaries. In his speech, the 20 million jobs created by Reagan were set against the 25 million children never born due to legalized abortion. But there was more. Reagan won the Cold War: now we had to finish the job and win another war, the "cultural war." America, said Buchanan, was "immersed in a religious war for her soul." And in this war, homosexuals, feminists, abortionists, atheists, ecologists and leftists were the enemies, to be broken with fire and sword.

If the politics of hatred is hateful, why does it recur time and again? The possibilities are two: one, that it reflects a deep, irrational drive in the human being toward the destruction of the other; two, that the politics of hatred is electorally profitable, and for that reason rational. Political scientists hold that politics has two faces: one is that of "who gets what," which has to do with how we distribute limited resources between different social groups. The other concerns itself with the imposition of values.

Understood in the first way, politics may be a source of conflict: if what you get is what I lose, then tension is inevitable. But it may also give rise to consensus if the two parties decide to split the difference. The nice thing about distributive conflicts is that the goods in dispute are normally divisible, so that they usually tend to the emergence of broad consensus around centrist positions. But differences concerning morality, identity, religion and culture cannot be divided up so easily. This is why they are so useful; they polarize electorates, moving them away from the center, rendering voters faithful to the extremes. If politics is rational, I can change my vote at each election, in function of what one side or the other offers. But if what is at stake is my identity, religion or culture, and what moves me is hatred, how am I going to vote for the others? If hatred works, it is because it is the favorite instrument of a kind of war that often goes unnoticed: cultural war.

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