Cafe Culture

Anger, Hate, Demonization, Villains, and Politics

The Democrats are right to be concerned over the consequences of anger. Look at Jared Loughner. Is it possible to direct anger against individuals, organizations, and groups without having that anger develop into hatred, contempt, and disgust – affective commitments that would aim to exclude the objects of anger from a role in politics or even (sometimes) from being recognized as human? Anger is a normal part of democracy, exclusion is not. The difference may lie in short- versus long-run feelings. Blame for particular outcomes need not become demands for permanent exclusion, anger need not build into hatred.

If permanent demonization is morally undesirable, can we avoid it without giving up powerful mobilizing tools? Short-run blame and anger can be used to demand structural reforms. But can the demonization let up then, when popular mobilization seems less needed? Or do we need it in order to remain watchful and suspicious, since we know that all laws can be gradually undermined by vigilant opponents?

The difference between the short-run and the long, or between specific actions and general villains, is like that between guilt and shame. People feel guilty over specific things they have done. They feel shame when they see their entire beings as unworthy. Shame can become an ongoing status of being morally unworthy. Can we focus our indignation on actions rather than on actors, by trying to attach guilt to actions instead of shame to actors? This will be easier if we are upset by a particular event than if we are reacting to an ongoing stream of activities. The financial meltdown of 2007-2008 was that kind of event, and – promisingly from an ethical viewpoint – had a number of potential villains rather than a single central villain.

Villains are powerful and malevolent. We try to portray opponents as villains to emphasize the threat they pose. (Weak opponents are clowns, objects for ridicule not fear.) Villains are more frightening, pose more of a threat, and demand more attention when they are evil through and through.  It may not be possible to craft effective political narratives without any villains. Perhaps the best we can do is to create villains out of generic categories rather than naming individuals. But even that loses some of its rhetorical punch.

Victims are weak and good, in need of intervention, in need of heroes to save them. There can be victims without villains, with only a little stretching: we speak of victims of natural forces and disasters. This kind of victim needs comfort and aid. But if victims are going to inspire new policies, or to mobilize widespread political action through a sense of urgency, they usually need villains who are threatening them. Villain-less victims require charity, not politics.

Americans see rich people, according to psychologist Susan Fiske, as powerful but not as good. They are easily crafted into villains, in true populist fashion, especially when they take the form of bankers, stock brokers, and others who do not really “work” for their money, who do not really “earn” it. But since we don’t expect bankers to be good, we are not necessarily outraged when they live up to our expectations. That is where threat comes in: they need to be doing something that directly threatens. The financial meltdown menaced everyone, in this country and around the globe (broad scope also contributes to the threat).

It is rare for Democrats to specify villains in their rhetoric. One reason is the long-running corporate campaign, reinforced by ideological economists, to portray the economy as a natural system with its own laws. Efforts to interfere with those laws backfire in unpredictable ways. You can’t blame nature the way you can humans, so markets may lead to suffering but there is little we can do to alleviate it. This vision has been central to the neoliberal project of recent years. But it has cracks, and occasionally we see individuals and corporations doing bad things to manipulate those supposedly natural markets, things that can have devastating results. These moments are the only chance the Left has of undermining the great Market Vision.

The more obvious reason that Democrats tend not to demonize the financial industries is their dependence on contributions from those same people. In this case, it may be the Democrats’ allies who need to do the demonization necessary to push legislation through Congress, especially the unions. But the unions have done this, more or less, for a long time without reaching a broader public in the way that politicians can.

There was talk, after the Giffords shooting, of ratcheting down the rhetorical tone of American politics. This might help the Democrats if it is mostly the Republicans who calm down. But the Republicans know better. Something similar happened in Israel in 1995. Binyamin Netanyahu constantly and grotesquely berated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as a traitor for his peace talks, until a rightwinger assassinated Rabin. The act shocked and sobered up Israeli citizens. But Netanyahu’s Likud party won a big victory only six months later. Rabin was collateral damage in Netanyahu’s electoral campaign.


Politicians face what I call the Naughty or Nice Dilemma: strategic players can go for short-run gains, but often at some cost to their reputations. This is worth it when the gains are important and hard to reverse later. In electoral politics, naughtiness tends to alienate voters in the center but to energize your extremist supporters. In protest movements, it tends to bring down repression by the authorities. Democrats and Republicans tend to take different approaches to this dilemma, but we cannot say which strategy is more effective in general.

Rules for being nice:

Don’t single out individuals, as occurred with Palin’s notorious cross-hair targets.

Instead use abstract categories such as bankers, international financiers, speculators, rich corporations, tax dodgers. Vague threats can be exaggerated easily to seem more urgent.

Focus on actions, not actors.

Rules for being naughty:

Find loaded terms for villains, to build them up as strong and menacing: parasites, vampires, leeches, and so on.

Question their motives: this makes them seem more threatening AND more immoral (because they are duplicitous). But if they are malevolent rather than simply misguided, more permanent constraints may be needed.

Name names: individuals give concreteness and plausibility to general positions and characterizations of groups. One villain is assumed to represent many more, lurking out there.

Name calling: go back and forth between individuals and abstract categories, as each illuminates the other.


For moral reasons, we may still wish to avoid this kind of demonization. But let’s not pretend that being nice is always the most effective strategy as well as the most upright one.

  • JR

    I agree with a lot of this, but I think that both Democrats and Republicans use specific villains as well as more vague, general boogymen. Democrats and the left vilified Bush and Cheney more than any individual I’ve seen in my years following politics. And the Tea Party is now vilified roundly…cue Jimmy Hoffa Jr’s “Let’s Take these son-of-a-bitches out” comment. In general the left fears/hates the rich, Wall St., corporations, ect. The Republicans, meanwhile, vilify Obama on the short term, much as they did Clinton before. On a broader scale, they still insist socialists are out to destroy American. I don’t really see much difference, at least at the vanguard of each party. I have seen some difference in the politicians themselves. Notably, the President seems to have at least attempted to be more bi-partisan. This has been to his own detriment, however. A heath care plan that angered both sides, and constant appeasement to the right on several issues has angered his base. Yet it seems to have only emboldened his opposition. While ideally compromise and common sense SHOULD prevail in American politics, it instead earns you the label of “weak.” This is just one of several reasons I don’t identify with either side, and just shake my head, and observe from afar.