The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How calls to ‘love your enemies’ enforce the status quo

‘Love politics’ is getting out of hand.

Former vice president Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, at a campaign rally in Philadelphia on May 18. Biden is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In these early days of his candidacy, Joe Biden has made criticism of anger in politics central to his candidacy. In his first campaign rally on May 18, the former vice president pledged to never “demonize … opponents,” never to lead with a “clenched fist, closed hand, a hard heart.”

“They say Democrats are so angry that the angrier a candidate can be the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination,” he said. “I don’t believe it.” His wife, Jill, looked on, wearing a jacket with the word “LOVE” emblazoned on the back.

Anger has certainly fueled American politics in recent years, but Biden is positioning himself as part of a would-be counterforce: He’s espousing the politics of unity — or, to take the idea a step further, a kind of “love politics.”

Biden has plenty of company in this pursuit. A group called Better Angels is working to build a “movement to reduce political polarization” by promoting conversations across party lines. Conservative Arthur Brooks, outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute, has been making the case to “Love Your Enemies,” as the title of his new book puts it. It’s natural to assume one’s own “ideology is based in love, while your opponent’s is based in hate,” he wrote in an article adapted from the book. But we need to “disagree better,” Brooks contends — by ridding ourselves of contempt.

“Love politics” has a genuine appeal. Who among us could possibly argue that American politics is working, or is not suffused with vitriol? Who among us doesn’t want love?

But like love itself, love politics is complicated. When cleaved from deeper values, like truth and justice, and from an honest historical reckoning, love falls short.

Chasing White House officials out of restaurants is the right thing to do

Love politics flattens anger. In their sincere belief that calmer conversations will heal our dysfunctional political system, advocates of a gentler approach to political disputation can end up framing all anger as equal — equally unjustifiable, equally counterproductive. But righteous anger in response to injustice is not the same as the oppressive anger that fuels it. (Biden himself recognized this in beginning his presidential bid — announced by video — with the words “Charlottesville, Virginia,” and then attacking President Trump’s reference to “very fine people on both sides” in the clash between white supremacists and protesters.)

Love politics is ahistoric. It papers over the inconvenient truths of American democracy, often remaking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into a placid icon. Love politics adherents frequently evoke the King who urged Americans to reach for “the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” but rarely speak of the King of 1963’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he berates the white moderate who “paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom,” and declares that “shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Never do they present King’s more radical solutions to the injustice that was at the heart of the civil rights movement: His calls for wealth redistribution and a guaranteed basic income to compensate for labor that was stolen from enslaved Americans.

Love politics holds no one to account. It is politics in the passive voice: “The United States is disuniting,” observers the Better Angels’ website. But what disunites us? Among other things, a right-wing media ecosystem that sows disinformation, from birtherism to Pizzagate conspiracy theories. These in turn promote distrust in mainstream institutions, leading to a government starved not only of resources — an explicit goal of the conservative movement for decades — and also a diminution of basic, day-to-day conviction required to function.

The proponents of love politics certainly have little use for Trump’s demagoguery and name-calling. But is it a coincidence that calls to lower the temperature of politics have arisen just as women’s anger has begun to fuel progressive political victories? Women were the power behind 2018’s gains by the Democratic Party, supporting Democratic House candidates by rates eight percentage points higher than in 2014.

There is paternalism in calls by the mostly male advocates of love politics to, in effect, “just calm down” — even if the calls are not directed specifically at women. Women are angry for a myriad reasons, not least of which is a conservative campaign to take over the courts that has catalyzed draconian antiabortion laws at the state level. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said women who protested Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court suffered from “hysteria.” Calls to tamp down anger in this political climate harks back to the days, not long ago, when “reasonable” white men engaged in politics on behalf of, but not with, the rest of America.

The myth of the angry mob

Of course, it is important that people try to connect, empathically, even across vast political disagreements. Personal relationships can be transformative. Take Derek Black’s denouncement of his white nationalist upbringing, an evolution that was shaped by his conversations with friends over regular Shabbat dinners. Through the trusting relationships that he built at college and the firsthand contact he had with Jewish friends whose family members had perished in the Holocaust, Black, whose father had founded the hate site Stormfront, was able to grapple with and ultimately disavow the extreme racist and anti-Semitic beliefs he had been taught from birth.

But the notion that a larger dose of respectful conversations is all we need to close the deep cleavages in American politics is at best inadequate and at worst disingenuous. Love politics’ proponents frame our nation’s ills as interpersonal and, in so doing, gloss over structural inequities, fundamental clashes in values, and discrepancies in access to power. They also ignore conservative attacks on democratic institutions.

Would more respectful dialogue have altered Senate Republicans’ flouting of Senate rules in their refusal to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court? How would listening with an open heart counter the fact that Brian Kemp is now governor of Georgia at least in part because he oversaw the rules governing his own election and took actions that suppressed an unknowable number of votes (that likely would have gone to Stacey Abrams, his Democratic opponent)?

For love politics to realize its healing potential, it must recognize sins of the past and present and work to build something greater. That’s why the anger that fuel many of today’s social movements, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo, is itself such an important force for a broader, more encompassing version of love. That passion must not be suppressed to achieve the abstract goal of “depolarization.” As Abrams said in her November non-concession speech: “We are a mighty nation because we embedded in our national experiment the chance to fix what is broken. To call out what has faltered. To demand fairness wherever it can be found.” Paeans to harmony alone won’t help us harness the redemptive power of love.

Truth and justice just might.