Here’s the thing about what was said here yesterday. What Seth said was absolutely true…and missed something important about democracy.
The kind of thing he’s talking about has been going on practically since the founding of the Republic. For instance, the 1800 presidential election involved claims that Thomas Jefferson would set up a guillotine in Washington D.C. and execute his political opponents. While based in his support for the French Revolution in its early stages, this was still stretching things. The Federalists were denounced for being closet monarchists–a charge that, after the Alien and Sedition Acts, had some validity.
Fast forward to the period before the Civil War, when conspiracy theories spread like a cancer through the American body politic. Abraham Lincoln made a speech claiming that there was a conspiracy to spread slavery through the entire country–and this was when he was something of a contender for the Republican nomination for president. Admittedly, after the Dred Scott decision, Kansas-Nebraska, and the Gadsden Purchase, this was not entirely out of the question, but evidence of an organized conspiracy was lacking. Southerners were convinced that there was a general abolitionist conspiracy to foment a mass slave uprising in the South, and that the Republicans were in on it. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry indicated that this theory had a grounding in truth, but there was really no evidence that anyone beyond some Massachusetts radicals were involved.
In the 1930s, rumors were spread of a “Business Plot” to overthrow FDR and install a right-wing dictator in his place–and by “rumors were spread,” I mean “the man who told of the plot was invited to testify before Congress.” How valid this was is questionable at best, given that while the gentleman in question, Smedley Butler, was a highly decorated Marine officer, he had become a well-known pacifist and critic of corporate America. On the flip side, there were also people convinced that FDR intended to establish a communistic or socialistic regime in America–while this may seem strange, after the court-packing plan incident, there was some reason to be concerned.
Now look, here’s what I’m not saying with this. I’m not saying that the kind of complete nutjobbery that inspires people to automatically ascribe the worst sort of motives to their political opponents is a good thing–or, for that matter, isn’t a significant problem. My point is, however, that this is not a problem unique to today–or, for that matter, to America, despite the fact that all of my examples are from there. This is a problem endemic to the human condition–because it’s easy to say that your opponents are terrible people who want to destroy the land. At the very least, it’s easier than explaining that your opponent’s policy will lead to the destruction of the land, albeit unintentionally.
It also makes people feel a whole lot more heroic to oppose malevolent people as opposed to incompetent people, and makes them feel better about their own positions. The second is a little less obvious than the first, and here’s what I mean by it. If someone disagrees with your political position because they don’t think it works, and you accept that they believe that, then you have to explain why it works–and you might end up not being able to, which might cause you to need to rethink your ideas. If, however, someone disagrees with you because they’re evil, then you don’t have to explain anything to them, and you don’t have to rethink anything–you also become justified in doing unethical things to them.
In other words, assume that your opponents are not malevolent until they prove otherwise–and making policy decisions that you disagree with doesn’t count as malevolence.
‘Til next time,
Lowell Van Ness