Prejudice and the Election

Evil Republicans, stupid Democrats, and worse.

Posted Oct 22, 2008

Social psychologists interested in prejudice might usefully turn their attention to a rampant and destructive set of prejudices, namely the way Republicans and Democrats regard each other.

Prejudice is one of the most widely studied phenomena in my field of social psychology. But I think my colleagues are missing the boat, at least if their goal is to understand the nature and operation of prejudice. They spend huge amounts of time and effort studying anti-black prejudice among American whites. This, surely, is one of the least typical prejudices in the history of the world, overlaid as it is by conflict, denial, guilt, political correctness, and other compromising pressures.

In contrast, if they want to understand prejudice, may I suggest that an ideal venue would be to study how Democrats and Republicans feel about each other?

As a nonpartisan observer of American politics, I find it alternately shocking and depressing to listen to how Democrats and Republicans speak of each other. Both seem intent on seeing each other in the worst possible light. They take gleeful pleasure in the failures and scandals of the other side. They find the worst examples of behavior by the other and hold them up as if they were typical.

Political party prejudice seems not to have any of the ambivalence or conflict or reticence that characterizes American racial prejudice. People who would shudder at the thought that any comment, even based on solid facts, might be interpreted to contain the slightest criticism of someone of another race will cheerfully and openly attribute all sorts of terrible traits to members of the political opposition.

In my impression, political prejudice has gotten progressively worse in recent years. For a long time, I thought I had listened to enough Democrats and Republicans talking about the other to discern the main themes. Republicans regarded Democrats as stupid. Democrats regarded Republicans as evil. This made sense in terms of the traditional way that American politics operated. From my perspective, politics is mostly about tradeoffs between high ideals of taking care of everybody and pragmatic concern with taking care of the economy so wealth is created. The Democrats tended to come down on the side of ideals and taking care of people, even if that meant spending too much, which is why Republicans thought them stupid. The Republicans tended to concentrate on protecting business and the economy, even at the expense of letting people suffer, which is why the Democrats thought them evil.

To be sure, that simple formula no longer applies. The recent Republican administration was not fiscally prudent, and it did embrace some ideals, though not ones that the Democrats recognize. Hence Bush and his group are seen by their detractors as stupid as well as evil. It looks like we are about to see the Democrats take charge, and I suspect their detractors will soon find reasons to reproach them as both stupid and evil too.

Studying this brand of prejudice would yield knowledge about prejudice that is probably far more typical than studying white anti-black prejudice. Throughout world history, most prejudices have probably been open and avid, seizing any negative trait that can plausibly be pinned on the target. How about it, anyone? Time for research?

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