Saturday, June 26, 2004

On Hating the President

Cass Sunstein

Why did so many people hate Clinton, and why do so many people hate Bush? Here are the rudiments of a tentative general account: 1) The executive branch, in any year or even any month, makes a huge number of decisions. Just as a statistical matter, some of these will inevitably show some kind of major procedural or substantive problem (call these "potential scandals"). The decisions might turn out to be badly wrong. Or there will be at least the perception and possibly the reality of some kind of self-dealing or corruption. Even if a presidential administration shows unimpeachable integrity 99.9% of the time, the 0.1% will produce large numbers; and in the mix will be clear errors of judgment. 2) Countless people have a strong incentive, material or otherwise, to seek out and make loud noise about the potential scandals, and to portray them as much worse than they are. These include political adversaries or members of the news media. If 2) is put together with 1), it's inevitable that a lot of attention will be given to plausible reasons to hate a president. 3) Information spreads quickly, especially among like-minded people; and when like-minded people talk with or listen mostly to one another, they go to extremes. (There's evidence for this in countless domains, including the decisions of federal judges; in many areas of law, Republican appointees get super-conservative when sitting with fellow Republican appointees, and Democratic appointees get super-liberal when sitting only with fellow Democratic appointees.)

The result? A short-hand phrase (eg, the Patriot Act) or even a word or a name (Whitewater, Haliburton, Ashcroft) will soon trigger a set of intense negative associations among basically sensible people, even when the intensity of the negative reaction is quite senseless.

This isn't to deny that distinctive predispositions and interesting mechanisms lie behind, eg, hatred of Clinton or hatred of Bush, and it doesn't take a stand on whether intense negative reactions are justified. The claim is only that because of 1, 2, and 3, hatred of the President, among large numbers of citizens, is inevitable, at least after a nontrivial period of time (eg two years).


There has to be a certain amount of common sense here. The fact is that Clinton and Bush are strong political personalities with certain characteristics that raise the emotions of large amounts of people. In their own way, they each have moral failings and other characterisics that raise the hackles of loads of people. It is they themselves not just some complex political calculus that explains the hatred. A person like Bush41 just doesn't cause such hatred. Kerry's unfortunately rubs many the wrong way ... again, it's more personal than anything else.

I would rather say that 1) erodes or destroys the background level of trust that any given person has in the integrity and honesty of a particular president (whether they voted for the president initially or not). What you are calling "hatred" seems to be reached when a person concludes - as you say, rationally or not - that (a) the fundamental motivations and intentions of the president are malign and (b) he's lying about his real motivations and intentions. Maybe this is just a subset of your point 2), but it's the mechanism that I saw operating against Clinton and against Bush now.

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Haters don’t really hate you. They hate themselves because you’re a reflection of what they wish to be.
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