Much of the post-debate commentary (including my own first post) is missing something — any serious discussion of the Marianne Williamson moment. And make no mistake, she had a moment. By one key metric — Google interest — she was the absolute dominant figure of the debate. This chart, comparing Google searches before and after the debate, is remarkable:
Before and after: the #DemDebate in search.
— GoogleTrends (@GoogleTrends) July 31, 2019
While she had a number of memorable answers, her main moment — the response that set the Internet aflame and launched a thousand memes — was her declaration that “wonkiness” was inadequate to address the “dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” that Donald Trump was “bring up in this country.” She was responding to a question about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and she said this:
I assure you — I lived in Grosse Pointe, what happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry, and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight. If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.
You can watch her answer here:
Across Twitter, there was a bit of a two-step reaction. First, “Hahaha, the new age guru just used the phrase ‘dark psychic force.'” Then, second, “Wait, there’s something to what she just said.”
It is absolutely, positively crystal clear that Trump builds much of his appeal with his base on his own rage and fury. He stokes anger and then basks in the chants and cheers. He launches wild and malicious attacks, going too far even when attacking progressive politicians who have their own checkered records on bigotry and hate. Exactly no one can look at Trump and argue that he is trying to bring Americans together. His entire, emerging re-election strategy runs contrary to a message of unity and social cohesion. He intentionally tries to provoke, holding firm in the belief that if he can motivate his base enough, he doesn’t have to win America’s shrinking middle.
But no one — absolutely, positively no one — should think that the “dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” is unique to Trump or Trump’s base. At the risk of incurring Williamson’s wrath by getting a tad wonky, there is a nerd term for Williamson’s psychic force. It’s called negative polarization, it’s rampant, and it’s used to rationalize and justify all manner of excesses and outrages. Essentially, negative polarization means that individuals are drawn to their political party or faction primarily out of a spirit of opposition. They hate the other side more than they love their own.
As I’ve written many times before, the evidence of that hate is everywhere — especially in America’s most politically engaged citizens. A recent study documented some rather alarming statistics. For example, “42 percent of the people in each party view the opposition as ‘downright evil.’” A stunning 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans believe “we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.” And if the opposing party wins the 2020 election, 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans “feel violence would be justified.” A More in Common survey found that 86 percent of Republicans think Democrats are brainwashed, 84 percent think they’re hateful, and 71 percent think they’re racist. The Democrats were even more disdainful of Republicans — 88 percent think Republicans are brainwashed, 87 percent think they’re hateful, and 89 percent think they’re racist.
Each side has its own narrative — pointing to real incidents and real bigotry — that justifies its increasing disdain. And don’t think for a moment that this is a phenomenon that started with Trump. Pew Research Center data from 2014 shows an astonishing rise in polarization even before Trump. Republicans and Democrats not only grew further apart ideologically, they hated each other more. The percentage of Americans holding a “very unfavorable” view of their political opponents more than doubled between 1994 and 2014, on both sides.
Williamson’s moment may have been the most important of the entire debate. She tapped into one of the central questions of modern American politics. Is it possible for any politician to reverse this cycle of mutual enmity and disgust? In fact, negative polarization is so profound that easing this mutual enmity and distrust should be a priority of national leadership.
Williamson is not going to be president of the United States, and the Google searches of her name reflect not just inspiration at her words but also curiosity about her undeniably eccentric manner and beliefs. But in her quirky way she tapped into something real. There is, in fact, something dark lurking in American civil society, and all the wonks and all the plans in either party won’t purge that darkness so long as stoking partisan fury is seen as the most expedient path to power.