07/05/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Politics on the Couch: Hating the Haters

What follows is the sixth post for the interactive book, Politics on the Couch. Readers' comments are welcome and an integral part of this experiment.

POLITICS ON THE COUCH: Hating the Haters

"No snowflake in an avalanche ever felt responsible."
- Voltaire

Large groups are more effective at expressing hate than mere individuals. They can remain anonymous as they feed each other's shared passion. But you don't have to be anonymous to hate in public. Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox News personalities Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity -- to name a few -- find shamelessness in numbers, and are egged on by an administration that openly condones torture and a Supreme Court that comfortably lifts a 30-year ban on owning handguns in Washington, DC.

In 2008, Democratic voters formed paranoid groups around senators Clinton and Obama, spewing inter-group hatred within their own party. Even in late June, many Clinton supporters still refuse to support Obama, threatening to voice their hatred of him by voting for McCain, or by not voting at all.

In 2000, Ralph Nader mobilized enough bi-partisan haters, by labeling Bush and Gore as indistinguishable, to put the election in the hands of the Supreme Court. Our nation has paid dearly for the Nader group's paranoid attack ever since.

The hatred described above was planned and proactive. But paranoid groups are also opportunistic scavengers. Passionate outbursts by Reverend Wright and an off-hand remark made by Michelle Obama were seized upon as evidence that mistrust of Obama and his inner circle was justified. It even allowed hatred to expand exponentially, giving permission for racists to unleash fears they might otherwise have kept to themselves.

On Meet the Press, McCain surrogate Sen. Lindsay Graham anticipated that Obama would cite racism as the motivation for Republicans to raise legitimate comparisons between the candidates (including, presumably, the facts that Obama is black and has an Arabic middle name). Graham said, "Every word will be twisted to make it about race." The good senator then took the opportunity to earnestly remind voters that when Obama debates issues of the economy or terrorism, it will have "nothing to do with him being an African-American". As Jerry Seinfeld might have added, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Obama's opponents are also using religion to drive wedges between the candidate and voters. Psychologist James Dobson, chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, claimed that Obama "is deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology. He is dragging biblical understanding through the gutter."

The lead sentence in a mid-June AP story pushes all the buttons, raises all the questions: "A presidential candidate who's named Hussein and wears a turban? A building that's called the White House but run by a black guy?"

So here we are. And the fine line between hating the haters and fearing the haters -- especially fearing their influence on the uninformed and undecided voters -- was crossed on June 24 by Obama supporters who muscled two Muslim women out of camera range so they wouldn't be seen standing behind Obama at a televised rally. Where does Obama stand on this episode? Is he ducking, as we used to say in the schoolyard? It remains unclear.

There are two fundamental reasons to fear hatred: first that it may lead to violence; second that it may cause voters to vote their prejudices instead of the issues. Bullying intimidation by Bush thugs during the 2000 Florida recount frightened the workers hired to ensure a fair election. The same tactics could well emerge in 2008 -- this time to alienate already nervous voters from a black candidate whose middle name is Hussein.

So far we are not talking about unconscious hate, though people often hide their deeper prejudices from themselves. One central source of tyranny lies in racial hatred. So for Sen. Graham to be glib or dismissive about the importance of hatred is to invite more. Human irrationality -- whatever its causes -- has always played a role in determining events. And it continues to do so this year.

But where does hate come from? I wrote that Bush's sadism -- whether it was his pleasure blowing up frogs or branding college fraternity pledges with red-hot wire coat hangers, originated in his childhood fear of humiliation. He expressed that fear, and continues to do so, by relentlessly trying to humiliate others. Emotional splitting between self and other facilitates hate; the hater feels that the hated are wholly different alien beings. Hatred sharpens our vision of the enemy, even when that enemy is a fellow Democrat who supports a different candidate.

Hate arises from envy as well, from the need to spoil goodness in others. When Obama says he believes in negotiating with our enemies he was viciously attacked by Bush for being weak. Even Obama's patriotism was questioned. But when Bush negotiates a treaty with North Korea he does so out of his self-described skillful diplomacy, not out of weakness or naiveté.

Voters need to overcome their fear in order not simply to hate the haters -- they need to recognize who in fact the haters are. There is no question that powerful emotions are made more powerful when expressed in a group. And deviating from group hatred is extremely difficult. Individuals tend to remains faithful to their group, even when the group changes direction. If people doubt what the group stands for -- what they stand for -- they are plagued by inner doubt and emotional pain even if they don't eventually separate. We see this self-doubt and pain in Clinton supporters faced with supporting Obama.

Questions: Do you feel hate is part of human nature or reactive to something else? How much does being part of a group affect your feelings about candidates? What role does the media play in fanning hatred?