One Nation, of Idiots and Evil People

Maybe what divides Americans isn't what they believe, but where they are.

Shades of gray, we are not.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There's a somewhat self-congratulatory saying among conservative intellectuals to the effect that ... well, I'll just let conservative intellectual Charles Krauthammer say it:

Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.

In the 2002 opinion column from which this quote was taken, Krauthammer called this a "fundamental law," and he argued that it stemmed from the fact that liberals are naive about human nature and conservatives are realists (and thus favor policies that liberals consider unduly cruel, even evil). But when somebody repeated the saying to me last week, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had in Alabama last fall. The pragmatic former small-town elected official I was visiting had shaken his head in contemplation of the upcoming presidential election, then called it "a contest between an idiot and an evil person."

The idiot was Donald Trump, the evil person Hillary Clinton. Which has gotten me thinking: Maybe the stupid/evil dichotomy has less to do with political philosophy than with where you are and what almost everyone around you thinks.

If you're a conservative intellectual of national repute, chances are you spend most of your time in New York, Washington or on a college campus. This means you are surrounded by liberals (I'm using the term, as Krauthammer did, in the U.S. sense of left of center, not the free-minds, free-markets definition that prevails in most of the rest of the world) in your neighborhood, at dinner parties, at school events, in television green rooms and maybe even at the office. You have so many dealings with these people that, however much they may irritate you sometimes, you don't see them as evil because they so obviously aren't.

This is not because liberals are especially nice. It's just that -- while under certain circumstances, often under the pressure of group dynamics, we humans can do awful, awful things -- most of us aren't evil. (No, I don't have any data to back this one up. But it seems right. Right?) So if you're a conservative and have constant interactions with people that you know are liberal, you also know they're generally not evil. And so, because their political positions are different from yours, you find other ways to explain their clearly erroneous thinking.

Meanwhile, if you're a liberal in New York, Washington or a college campus, you're not surrounded by conservatives, and you may not know that the nice person you run into while walking the dog harbors right-wing political sentiments because people with extremely unpopular views tend to keep quiet about them unless they're in a safe space like 1211 Avenue of the Americas. 1  When you don't know any conservatives, or think you don't, it's much easier to ascribe malicious motives to them. And so Krauthammer's law generally holds, in Krauthammer's world.

I get the impression, though, that its inverse has taken hold in places where the overwhelming majority think of themselves as conservatives. Remember when Alex Jones said on his radio show last fall that Hillary Clinton "is an abject, psychopathic demon from hell that as soon as she gets into power is going to destroy the planet" and that Barack Obama is clearly a demon too because flies are always landing on him? (If you don't remember that, you may remember Obama mocking the story on the campaign trail.) Now I think most of Jones's listeners could understand that he traffics in hyperbole, and that Clinton and Obama do not actually "smell like sulfur," but the message that they are evil surely resonated. Roy Moore, the new Republican Senate nominee from Alabama, certainly doesn't hesitate to use the word to describe political beliefs he disagrees with.

When I was in College Station, Texas, last year, a Texas A&M University faculty member recounted a conversation with a local business owner from whom he had recently bought something. During an otherwise pleasant chat, she had launched into a rant about the evil, foreign, Muslim Obama. He nodded quietly, paid and left. Her belief that liberals are evil was not shaken by any hint that her nice customer harbored dissenting views, and while his belief that many conservatives are stupid or deluded may have been strengthened, he wasn't going to boycott her business for her political views because in Brazos County, Texas (2016 election result: 57.6 percent Trump, 34.4 percent Clinton), that would be impractical.

That political minority in Brazos County is actually pretty big, as local political minorities go these days. Much has been written (and charted) recently about increasing political homogeneity at the local level. As journalist Bill Bishop wrote in his influential 2008 book about the phenomenon, "The Big Sort," less than a quarter of Americans in 1976 lived in "landslide counties" where one presidential candidate got more than 80 percent of the vote. In the 2016 election, reported the New York Times, that was up to 60 percent of the electorate. I took a look at this evolution in two landslide counties: New York County, New York (aka Manhattan), where I live, and Cullman County, in the hills north of Birmingham in Alabama, where I ate many an orange roll at the All Steak in the early 1990s:

Similarly Polarized

Presidential vote percentages in New York County and Cullman County

Source: Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

The trajectories that the two counties have followed are different, but they have ended up as almost exact political mirrors of one another. If you're in that 90 percent in Cullman County or in Manhattan, you probably aren't accustomed to discussing politics with people who sharply disagree with you. And if you're in the 10 percent, you probably keep your politics to yourself.

"Politics" might even be the wrong word for it. As Bishop describes it in his book (and Andrew Sullivan does in a new essay in New York magazine), the divide is really more about identities, or tribes. Policy disputes aren't what separates us so much as differences in attitude and language. Which is why Donald Trump, despite his New York County address and all-over-the-political-map statements on the campaign trail, seems to be mainly just deepening the divide. Attitude and language -- and loyalty -- are what he cares about most, so those are the buttons that he keeps pushing.

How do we counter this growing tribalism, and growing conviction that those outside our tribes are motivated by Satanic impulses? I don't know! If I did, I would have told you already. Still, as a starting place, I recommend this: Just assume that those who disagree with you politically are really, really stupid.

(Corrects county of College Station, Texas, and election results in ninth and tenth paragraphs.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. There are a couple of very nice dog owners in my very lefty Manhattan neighborhood who openly supported Trump in the 2016 election. Every rule needs an exception, I guess.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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