Increasingly, politically-minded Americans see differences over politics as proofs of character flaws in the people who disagree with them. While Republicans most notoriously take this attitude, Democrats are really little different. Ad hominem politics is nothing new in the U.S., of course, but we've come a long way from the epic days of the Coffin Handbill to today's picayune equivalent, the revelation of Mitt Romney as a schoolyard bully. Before I go further, let me confess that bullying is a bad thing -- I suppose I'd count as a victim on a modest scale -- and that I remain opposed to most of what Romney stands for. But the glee with which some are pouncing on this news somehow strikes me as pathetic. It probably says as much about the current mania over bullying as it does about partisan politics, but does it follow that all bullies become miserable men or menaces? Democrats see Republicans in general as bullies (while some Republicans may see liberalism as the revenge of the nerds), and that may well color our current horrified perception of bullying. Democrats today are definitely reading their present perception of Romney and Republicans in general backward into Master Mitt's youthful pranks, but we do Republicans and bullies injustice, to different extents, when we assume some correlation between bullying youth and political belief. The error is to presume that Romney's bullying past is some kind of decisive argument against his election. In pursuing such a claim, Democrats may end up in the same kind of trap many Republicans have fallen into after arguing that adultery made certain Democrats unfit for high office.
The hidden potential for hypocrisy aside, this minor scandal reminds me of John Gray's sharp review in The New Republic of Jonathan Haidt's controversial volume, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. "Much of his book," Gray writes of Haidt, "is an attempt to apply the findings of evolutionary psychology to the political gridlock that currently exists in the United States. The incongruity of the exercise should not go unnoticed. Whatever the causes of division in Washington, they have nothing to do with evolution. The phenomenon is much too recent for any evolutionary explanation to be remotely plausible. It is also too distinctly American to be explicable in the universal terms of evolutionary theory....There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party....Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism."
To take the story of Romney as a bully seriously as a political argument would be an attempt to apply child psychology to political questions. Doing that is probably more plausible than applying evolutionary psychology -- Haidt applies it to account for a division between caring-and-fairness oriented liberals and authority-and-loyalty oriented conservatives -- but not much more. Our characters aren't fully formed in the schoolyard. The adult Romney's adventures at Bain Capital and the Massachusetts statehouse certainly tell us more about his potential fitness for the Presidency than his prep-school shenanigans. But because we identify bad policies with bad people, some of us will look at the bullying story as proof of something more than that Mitt Romney was a jerk as a teenager. If we're convinced that his policies are bad, however, we need no more reasons to vote for someone else. The bullying story will no more decide the election than the tales of Romney's mistreatment of his dog, -- which were answered with references to times when young Barack Obama ate dogs -- but it'll probably make the contest even meaner in any sense of the word.