JUST THINK: ONE YEAR FROM NOW WE CAN ENJOY Election Day 2004, a gift that will keep on giving for weeks afterward if the results are tight. I used to tell Texas journalism students that they should never describe a person as "likeable" because that adjective was so subjective. I would ask, "Can you name a single person who is likeable to everyone?"
One student in 1998 replied, "George W. Bush"-and that year he was close to being right. Not only did the governor win reelection with 70 percent of the vote, but most of the three out of 10 who voted Democratic had nice things to say about the winner. Gov. Bush got along so well with the then-Democratic-majority Texas legislature that its leading power broker, the late Bob Bullock, backed Mr. Bush's run for the presidency in 2000.
When TeamBush moved to Washington in 2001, it hoped to continue dancing the Texas bi-partisan two-step. D.C. cynics, though, muttered about romantic illusions, and they were right: The center did not hold, and the rest is hysteria.
Look at what liberals are now saying about the man I thought broke my ban on "likeable." Jonathan Chait, senior editor of The New Republic, wrote in September a column so acidic that it might embarrass even a senior editor of a high-school newspaper. Mr. Chait's memorable lead: "I hate President George W. Bush." His memorable specific detail: "I hate the way he talks-blustery self-assurance masked by a pseudo-populist twang. I even hate the things that everybody seems to like about him."
Mr. Chait insisted, "There seem to be quite a few of us Bush haters," and cited one pollster's report that Bush hatred is "as strong as anything I've experienced in 25 years now of polling." Conservative columnist Robert Novak agreed that we are now seeing "hatred ... that I have never seen in 44 years of campaign watching."
What to make of all this? We might think that chattering Chaiters are nuts, but Mr. Chait insists otherwise: "It is not the slightest bit mystifying that liberals despise Bush. It would be mystifying if we did not." I tend to agree with Mr. Chait-not because the president is hateful, but for two other reasons.
First, we have built a national political system with stakes so high that those wrapped up in it hate the thought of losing. In this country we used to have many kinds of government affecting our lives. We were governed not only by politicians but by leaders in business, education, philanthropy, and other spheres of interest. They could make their decisions largely free from governmental control, and those who aspired to power could work in those spheres without worrying a lot about what happened in Washington.
Now, we've built what is close to a winner-take-all system. Many see their future happiness as dependent on who's in charge in Washington. A man with many female friends is unlikely to become despondent if one of them marries someone else. A man who believes that his happiness depends on marrying one particular woman may hate a successful rival suitor.
That's where we are in politics now. A president has the power to appoint judges who these days often twist the Constitution. He can issue executive orders that turn previous legislation upside down. He can overrule actions of governors and mayors. Given such overarching power, his actions may create not just dislike but hatred. To improve the atmospherics of public life, we need to decentralize, returning authority whenever possible to localities and private citizens.
A second reason for the growth in political hatred is our decreased willingness to see God's providence in election outcomes. Nineteenth-century political campaigns were exceptionally hard-fought, but when they ended, the disappointed losers often waxed theological about the results: "God's will be done." When feelings ran so high that such reconciliation did not occur, the results could be dire: The Civil War is Exhibit A.
I would not have liked it had Al Gore won in 2000, but had that happened I would have stilled my disappointment (as I did following Bill Clinton's successes) with the thought that God still has the whole world in His hands. Without that faith, and with the concentration of power in Washington, every election may look like Armageddon, and every winner may look, to the disappointed losers, like Satan enthroned.