According to the narrative that appears to have been in place by Saturday, reactions to the news that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize were sharply split on partisan lines: Democrats celebrating and conservative Republicans reacting with “outrage.” Now, between Twitter and my RSS feed, I woke up to a whole slew of reactions from people on both sides of the spectrum Friday morning. And what I found striking at the time—notable enough that I wrote a tweet remarking on it—was that I was basically seeing the same reaction to the news from people who don’t otherwise agree on anything. And that reaction was neither outrage nor celebration; it was mockery. Everyone seemed to recognize that it was a bit absurd to give the prize to a first-term president who, whatever his potential, and however promising you might find his rhetoric, hasn’t had much chance to do anything really substantive yet. Multiple people—again, conservative activists and professional progressives—said they had thought they were reading an Onion headline. There were countless jokes along the lines of “Obama wins Chemistry Nobel for great chemistry with Michelle” or “Home video of Bo wins best picture Oscar.”
But of course, a couple things quickly happened. First, the current larger narrative about conservatives is that they’re boiling over with rage. This is not exactly an unfair stereotype—covering the RNC in 2004 I felt some sense of what it must have been like to sit in the audience at the gladiator fights in ancient Rome—but like all stereotypes, it is at best an approximate or aggregate truth. And so now all reactions from the right with any kind of negative valence—angry, disappointed, mocking, skeptical—tend to be read as “outraged.” Since partisans on both sides now seem to regard anything that angers the enemy as ipso facto good, the decision was to be praised and welcomed, less because it was intrinsically defensible because it was thought to have the happy side-effect of driving conservatives to distraction.
Nietzsche wrote at length about the tendency to define the good as whatever is opposed by some hated other. Unfortunately, he called it “slave morality”—a term I’m not going to touch with a ten-foot pole in the current climate—and only some of what he says about it is really applicable in our context, so I’ll use “oppositional morality” instead. Whatever natural instincts we have toward this kind of binary in-group/out-group thinking are probably exacerbated by a political system that ultimately pushes people to pick one of two viable teams, even though this is a poor fit for the variety of worldviews and interests in a large and diverse population. Otherwise incoherent coalitions are bound together by each defining themselves, somewhat circularly, as the negative of the other.
If you go to The American Spectator, for instance, you’ll initially get a popup ad with some prominent conservative praising the magazine and urging you to subscribe. One of the more frequent ones features radio shouter Mark Levin saying something along the lines of “The left can’t stand The American Spectator, and that’s why I love to read it!” Now, bracket for a moment whether most folks on the left are even particularly aware of the Spectator. Shouldn’t that strike us as a weird form of praise? You should read a magazine because some other group hates it? But of course, it’s not unusual these days. And it leads to an appalling situation where torture becomes, not just a thing some are willing to defend as a necessary evil, but as Adam Serwer argues, a “values issue,” or where Chicago losing the Olympics bid is cause for celebration just on the grounds that it counts as a failure for Obama.
Depending on the reasons for hostility, this may make at least some kind of sense. Liberals dislike Bill Kristol because he’s seen as an influential advocate for neoconservative views they find repugnant. If you endorse those views, that may count as a reason to be favorably disposed toward Kristol. Liberals dislike Sarah Palin because they find her contemptibly ignorant, which seems like a bad reason to make her your standard bearer even if you share her views as well. Of course, insofar as much of the putative ideological conflict in American politics is little more than thinly-veiled class antagonism, that may actually be even more of a selling point. Going back a few years to the Kelo v. New London eminent domain case, there were certainly some progressives who recoiled at the idea that private property could be seized by the government and handed over to some private company whenever it seemed likely to generate more economic value. They recognized that such a rule would inevitably victimize less-affluent populations with little political clout for the benefit of corporations and developers. Now, to be sure, if you have great (I might say “naïve”) faith that local and state governments will mostly use such power to benign ends, you can argue that it’s an unfortunate but ultimately necessary tool for economic revitalization. But it seemed like there were also folks on the left who just recoiled at anything flying the banner of “property rights,” which are apparently the exclusive concern of nasty people who don’t like paying taxes. At least for some people, it feels like political conflict has come unmoored from any actual policy roots and turned into one of those Hatfields-and-McCoys feuds whose origins are only dimly recalled by the combatants.