By Lawrence D. Blum

All people wish to kill. Killing for food, land, money, political advantage, religious principle, sexual partners, and even for amusement, are all part of our complex heritage. Children around the world play at hunting, war, and games like “cops and robbers.” The wish to kill informs our language: a good comedian “kills” the audience, and a sports team winning a big victory “slaughters” its opponent. What distinguishes us as individuals is not that we wish to kill, but how we handle those wishes. The recent presidential debates provide an instructive illustration.

As we grow up, most of us develop enough regard for other people that we carefully restrain our murderous impulses. The outright wishes to kill that are characteristic of childhood, and of rage in adulthood, are usefully diminished, controlled, or channeled elsewhere. The would-be killer of child’s play becomes a murder detective to catch such killers; or reversing the wishes altogether, becomes a helper such as a doctor, nurse, or social worker; or in more direct but still controlled expression of the aggression, becomes a football player or enlists in the army.

How one handles anger, aggression, and murderous wishes may also influence one’s politics. Democrats tend to be uncomfortable with aggression and to deny it in themselves and overlook it in others. They emphasize kindness and helpfulness to others. They want to be nice. They often refrain from attacking or criticizing their opponents, or do so in indirect and ineffective ways. Their tendency to see kindness rather than hostility in others can leave them vulnerable to attack, and can make people worry they will be insufficiently attentive to defending the country.

Republicans, on the other hand, tend to be much more comfortable with their aggression. Many attack their opponents without reservation or compunction. Operatives like Karl Rove and the late Lee Atwater are famous for tactics that have tested or trespassed the bounds of legality. The Republicans’ readiness to express their own aggression makes them expect others to do the same, so they tend to be very concerned about national defense. As shown in the House budget authored by Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, they are less concerned with policies that are protective of people.

A striking juxtaposition of the Democratic and Republican approaches occurred halfway into President Obama’s term when Senator Mitch McConnell declared that preventing Obama’s reelection was his party’s “single most important” goal. The wish to kill the president’s administration and career was obvious, and McConnell’s statement suggested to many that this was more important to him then the country’s interests. The Democrats, however, were reluctant to call McConnell to account, and the president continued his efforts to reach bipartisan agreements in the absence of a partner. Unfortunately for the Democrats, bullies seldom back down or respect you if you are nice to them.

That takes us to this campaign’s first presidential debate.. Here is a situation in which each participant wishes, at least figuratively, to kill the other. The Republican, Mitt Romney, attacked, not only his opponent, but also the moderator. He blatantly contradicted many of his previous positions, without hesitation, and with a straight face and forceful delivery. And the Democratic president? He neither attacked nor counterattacked, and he never challenged the abrupt about-faces of his opponent. This excessively careful behavior garnered him no respect, and to anyone concerned about the ability to respond to aggression as a show of strength, he looked tentative and weak. Many people who feel uncomfortable with their aggression will finally express it more vigorously if they are backed into a corner. President Obama seems to have done just that in the second debate after falling in the polls and receiving a chorus of criticism following the first debate.

Again, wishing to kill and feeling aggressive are ordinary and normal. But how one handles these wishes and feelings is crucial. Governor Romney has a history of excessive expression of aggression. He recently expressed remarkable contempt for 47% of the American population, and in his work with Bain capital he ruthlessly exploited many of the companies he bought, leaving American taxpayers to bail out the no-longer-employed workers’ pension plans after he bankrupted them. Internationally, he has gratuitously insulted both friends and foes. President Obama, in contrast, appears to have difficulty expressing anger or aggression, but he did famously order the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, and he continues to sanction drone attacks. His failure to respond to Republican attacks, and even to take credit for his successes (such as staving off a repeat of the Great Depression and saving the American auto industry and millions of associated jobs) was terribly costly to his party in the 2010 elections, just as his inability to usefully employ normal aggression hurt him and his party again in the first debate.

When it comes to handling aggression, there is no perfect method. What is the best way to express it, in any particular circumstance? And what of those many situations in which inhibiting aggression is a sign of strength? Too much routine expression of aggression and too much inhibition of it are both problematic. Political character is derived from personal character and is not easy to change. Voters rarely have an ideal choice. I wish that Obama seemed less worried about his own aggression (less worried he’ll kill someone), and that Romney seemed less intent on satisfying his aggressive wishes. Personally, I prefer Obama’s episodic over-inhibition to Romney’s persistent bullying, deception, and destructiveness. But I’d kill for a candidate who could really regulate his aggression well!

 (A version of this article was published in the commentary pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, October 21, 2012, under the title "Debates a Showcase of Primal Styles.") 

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