Is it possible to transform politics around values such as empathy, solidarity and love? Many progressive commentators think so, and have laid out different plans to put these ideas into practice. But empathy and love seem in short supply in the actuality of politics today, crowded out by hate and intolerance. In one society after another fear-mongering proceeds apace against poor people, immigrants, minorities and anyone else who is not part of the dominant group.
Politics have always been animated as much by passions as by policies, but we can’t assume those passions will be positive. Therefore it’s incumbent on us to understand how negative emotions play out in politics and how politicians exploit these feelings to advance their agendas. Where does hate come from, and why has it played such a role in recent political history?
According to psychologist Robert Sternberg hatred is not a single emotion, but instead comprises three distinct components. The first of these components is the negation of intimacy. Instead of wanting to be close to others, hatred grips us with a feeling of repulsion, an impulse to distance ourselves from the hated other.
The second component is hate’s passionate element: hate fills us with a mix of burning anger and unnerving fear. Sternberg’s third component is hate’s cognitive element, namely the stories we tell ourselves to justify the feelings of repulsion, anger and anxiety that hatred evokes within us.
Tragically, we have ample evidence to draw upon to understand how hatred can ignite and consume large parts of societies. In my new book Disordered Minds I examine some of the 20th century’s most appalling atrocities including the Holocaust, Stalin’s Gulag, Mao’s Great Famine, and Pol Pot’s Killing Fields in Cambodia. What stands out clearly from these examples is the critical role played by hate-mongers in fomenting each of these horrors. Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot all had an uncanny ability to inflame all three of Sternberg’s elements of hate.
For each of these tyrants, their first goal was to exacerbate the feelings of separateness and otherness felt towards their chosen target out-group, whether they were Jews, kulaks, ‘capitalist railroaders’ or other ‘enemies of the people.’ Their second goal was to inflame feelings of anger and fear towards that out-group. And their third goal was to spread stories that explained, in false and simple terms, why that outgroup was a deserving target of people’s hate.
These stories varied widely but they had certain elements in common: ‘the enemy is repulsive in looks and habits; ‘the enemy is contaminated and is spreading disease;’ ‘the enemy is part of a conspiracy seeking to control us;’ ‘the enemy is a criminal;’ ‘the enemy is a seducer and a rapist;’ ‘the enemy is an animal, an insect or a germ;’ ‘the enemy is the enemy of God’ ‘the enemy is a murderer who delights in killing;’ ‘the enemy is standing in the way of our making our country great again.’
In their mission to create divisions and target scapegoats for political gain, history’s hate-mongers repeated these stories relentlessly so that they became accepted wisdom, reinforced by propaganda –the ‘fake news’ media of the day—but they were also helped by existing fears and prejudices within their societies.
Initially they found their most devoted supporters among those who already shared the leader’s hatreds. A tyrants’ first step towards power, therefore, is to incite hatred among those who share their own warped worldview. But hate-mongers not only denigrate their chosen enemies; they also portray their core followers as exceptional human beings, as moral paragons and ‘fine people.’ The more hatred a toxic leader directs towards the ‘enemy’ while praising their in-group, the more galvanised their base of true believers becomes.
Once a tyrant has secured the adulation of a core group of true believers, their task is then to spread their hatred towards the target group as widely as possible throughout society. Whether or not they succeed in this mission depends in large part on what psychologist Edward Glaeser calls the ‘demand for hatred.’ As Glaeser explains, by spreading hate-filled stories hate-mongers increase the supply of hate, but the willingness of society to accept those stories constitutes the demand side of the equation.
Many factors contribute to a society’s willingness to accept a hate-monger’s lies. Economic hardship plays a central role. A society in which a substantial proportion of the population faces a daily struggle to make ends meet is susceptible to simple explanations and false remedies. Cultural differences can also be important. Majority populations experiencing significant immigration or demographic change can react defensively by turning on ‘outsiders’ who differ from them in terms of their culture or religion.
Geography too can be significant. Research shows that prejudices are stronger when they are based not on personal experience but result instead from hearsay or second-hand news. This finding sheds light on the puzzling fact that xenophobic populism has taken hold most strongly today in areas like Eastern Europe and rural America which have the lowest shares of immigrants. Our greatest commitment to destruction, it seems, is often towards those we have never met.
The famous symbol of a triangle that is used for fire safety purposes illustrates the three elements that are needed for any fire to take hold, namely a spark, fuel and oxygen. In political terms, hate-mongers act as the spark; their prejudiced true believers are the fuel; and the conditions which create the demand for hate in wider society provide the oxygen that allows the smouldering embers of hatred to ignite, grow and spread.
We don’t have to look far to find examples of the same phenomenon today. In the US, for example, President Trump has skilfully tuned into feelings of resentment on the part of substantial numbers of rural white Americans, openly denigrating immigrants as ‘rapists’ and ‘murderers’ and the press as ‘the enemy of the people.’ Inequality and demographic change have created the conditions in which Trump’s vitriolic scapegoating finds a ready response. A critical mass of people in positions of influence act as enablers of the President (whether out of self-interest or a belief in his broader agenda), and a siloed social media fans the flames of division.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban too has chosen to kindle hatred as a means of winning votes. He has vilified migrants, saying that they bring crime and terror, mass disorder, and “gangs hunting down our women and daughters.” He has labelled refugees and migrants as a pollutant, a distant other, and a threat to Hungarian culture and religion, saying, “The masses arriving from other civilisations endanger our way of life, our culture, our customs and our Christian traditions.” Orban has used his electoral victories to hollow out Hungarian democracy from within. In 2018 Hungary was named by Freedom House the “least democratic country” among the European Union’s 28 members.
The destruction caused by hate-mongers is evident to anyone with a cursory knowledge of history; their ongoing influence is equally clear to viewers of the daily news. Through their rhetoric they fundamentally alter the swing of the pendulum in the conduct of human affairs from compromise to conflict, from inclusion to vilification, and from compassion to cruelty.
While there is no simple solution to this problem, the most effective way to reduce the influence of hate-mongers is to strengthen democracy. Strengthening democratic norms and institutions can be effective because it addresses all three sides of the triangle of toxic leaders, susceptible followers, and conducive environments.
Democracy places limits on those in power. It reduces the scope for recourse to violence on the part of ruthless leaders. It forbids the abuse of state power against individuals and against sub-sections of society. And it subjects those in power to the rule of law. In this way it provides a powerful constraint on the destructive actions of hate-mongers and their followers. A properly functioning democracy can also address the social and economic concerns that allow hate-mongers to rise and stay in power.
In an earlier time of crisis, Dr Martin Luther King Jr responded to hatred by saying “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” In our current time of division it is worth bearing that advice in mind: when hate-mongers are threatening the very foundations of democracy, the most powerful act of love is to vote against hate at every opportunity.
Ian Hughes’ new book is Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities are Destroying Democracy.