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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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The politics of dislike
Why does every political season turn ugly? Why do we give in to hate?
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Denise Beckfield admits it: She doesn't like Sarah Palin. Actually, it's more than that: She affirmatively dislikes her.

"I think she's very calculating," says Beckfield, 54, a self-described Democrat who lives in Verona. "She'll say whatever it takes to get votes."

Beckfield's criticisms of Palin, the Republicans' pick to be a heartbeat away from the nuclear codes, are multiple and specific. She thinks Palin is untruthful - for instance, by portraying herself as a crusader against federal earmarks when, as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a city of about 7,000, she hired a lobbyist to help snare $27 million of them. She thinks Palin is unqualified, given her "complete absence of experience in foreign policy, Social Security, federal health policy and the global economy," among other things. She's "terrified" to think Palin would take over should something happen to John McCain, who's 72.

Those are all political reasons. But it goes deeper than that. Beckfield is disgusted that Palin has attacked Barack Obama personally - mocking his background as a community organizer, for instance - not on the basis of his policies or politics.

"I don't find her charming," she says. "I find her sneering, belittling, nasty and disrespectful." And Beckfield, a clinical psychologist by training (she worked at the Monroe Clinic and later the Dean Clinic, before a benign brain tumor forced an early retirement), even faults Palin as a mom.

"I think it's a delicate matter to speak about anyone else's parenting decisions, because we've all made mistakes, and it's very personal," says Beckfield, who has two kids of her own, now both adults. But she was taken aback to watch Palin with her four-month-old son, Trig, after her convention speech.

"She did not pick him up in the loving way I would have expected of a mother and cradle him," Beckfield recalls. "Instead, she very deliberately held him in an awkward position so his face was to the camera. As though to make certain every viewer could see that he was disabled. And I found that chilling."

Beckfield agreed to talk to Isthmus about her views on the presidential contenders, as she's done elsewhere in letters to the editor. A recent one in the Wisconsin State Journal said she's "been forced to revise my opinion of John McCain as a man of principle" due to falsehoods in his campaign ads and from his supporters.

"I am fed up with the smears, distortions and outright lies of the Republicans in this campaign," she wrote. "Are their policies and positions so weak that they feel this is the only way they can win the election?"

Still, when it comes to McCain, Beckfield "can't find it in myself" to dislike him.

Why not? Beckfield takes a stab at it: "Probably because of what he's done in the past." Not just his courage as a soldier and prisoner of war, but his congressional career as a reformer. She's disappointed in him, but that's as far as it goes.

Where do the lines get drawn, and why?

How can we maintain a modicum of respect for some politicians with whom we disagree, while others activate more kinetic emotions: anger, disdain, contempt?

Why does every political season turn ugly? Why do both pundits and ordinary people frequently give in to hate? And is any of this justified?

Nationally, it's easy to find expressions of contempt toward Obama and McCain - both honorable men of proven character. A book called The Obama Nation, pegged by the nonpartisan watchdog FactCheck.org as "a mishmash of unsupported conjecture, half-truths, logical fallacies and outright falsehoods," is a national bestseller.

Meanwhile, The Nation recently ran an outrageous essay ("Beauty and the Beast") accusing McCain of "deploying sex as a central political weapon to recharge his potency" in picking Palin. The magazine likened this to his abandonment of his first wife, after she was severely disabled in an auto accident, for "former junior rodeo queen" Cindy, who, "perhaps relieved of the burdens of wifely duties," welcomed Palin into the fold.

Locally, some of the sharpest barbs for and against candidates are lobbed in letters to the editor. A recent writer to Isthmus seethed, in response to another correspondent who put in a kind word for Republicans, "Go ahead and vote for these scumbags and see what you get!"

Some letter writers simply regurgitate lies. The State Journal recently ran a letter from Andy Anderson of Madison attacking Obama for declaring his Muslim faith, as well as "no flag pin, no hand over the heart, friends like the Rev. Wright." Anderson stated that Obama's backers "do not care about character or the dogs he runs with." Yikes.

Madison resident David Cartter revealed that being a "community organizer" in the Chicago area, as Obama was for three years, is "code for party worker," part of the Cook County machine. In fact, as Obama discusses at length in his book Dreams From My Father, his work as a community organizer involved campaigns to land a job center, remove asbestos from low-income apartments and improve schools. He was not snagging votes for Democrats. You could look it up.

But perhaps the most vociferous local Obama foe is Verona resident Mark S. Peterson. In several published letters, Peterson has referred to Obama as "this political nobody who was made a literary somebody by Oprah" and "an incredibly stylistic and charismatic individual who has captivated a fawning media" (this was before Palin arrived on the scene and did the same).

According to Peterson, Obama's stance on abortion "makes U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold...look like a pro-lifer." He said Obama believes "the only higher power we should put our faith in is government, replete with a rapid expansion of socialism and radical redistribution of wealth by means of confiscatory taxation."

He's ridiculed Obama supporters, saying "a large percentage of Americans don't know a Marxist from Groucho even when he promotes wage and price controls from a podium." And he's mused darkly that, when it comes to Obama, "many are willing to drink the Kool-Aid without realizing what's in it."

Peterson declined my request to discuss his positions and how he came to acquire them. When I said I may mention his letters on Obama anyway, he objected: "I'm not running for office, so I don't think I have to explain my views to anyone. Unfortunately, too many politicians are given a pass when it comes to explaining theirs."

Prof. Patricia Devine, chair of the UW-Madison's psychology department, says people with strong negative opinions about seekers of public office often have "very little real information" and are driven by the messages put out by the opposing political party. "Advertisements," she notes, "tend to demonize the other candidate."

People hear these messages and ratchet them up a few notches. "They exaggerate the claims and transform them. They end up feeling [these messages] more fervently." Psychological studies, she says, have found that "when people process information, they don't do it in an unbiased way. They filter it through their preconceived notions."

Ken Goldstein, a UW-Madison professor of political science, says strong negative reaction to candidates "is something that goes back as long as we've had elections. Campaigns tend to be aggressive times and...disagreements about politicians tend to translate into personal feelings."

But Goldstein says research "which should be reassuring" shows that "as strong as these reactions get during the election, they dissipate rather quickly." Both he and Devine cite the contested 2000 election as an example of how the system weathered a political crisis. As Devine puts it, "You would have thought it would tear the country apart."

Goldstein, while stressing that he doesn't want to "trivialize" the passions that play a part in political campaigns, makes an analogy to sports, where various teams and athletes are not just disliked but reviled.

"I'd wear an Obama button in Waukesha County before I'd wear a Michigan T-shirt at Ohio State," he says. "You're much more likely to get beat up."

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