One of the most overused terms of the last four years and change is “civility”. Cries of unhappiness with a candidate which manifest themselves in very public movements to make a candidate “earn” one’s support have their roots in the charge of being uncivil, as do charges of misconduct so egregious that large parts of the formerly flourishing intelligentsia of a movement decide that said movement is no longer their own because the movement continues to accept that misconduct. “Civility” is an overused term not because it’s something that isn’t sorely lacking in the present day, it’s an overused term because it has become a cliché. Not only is it a cliché, but it’s also a cliché that has simply become virtue signaling on behalf of the person charging another with incivility and vice signaling all the way around.
Ironically, the death of an old phenomenon has led to the arrival and growth of another phenomenon. The only surprising thing about this change was not that it occurred at all, but rather that it occurred as quickly as it did. I would offer a name for the present situation: the politics of spite.
The politics of spite are something which are rather hard to define from a conceptual standpoint. After all, what is the line between legitimate criticism, trolling, and plain bad faith. I would argue that there need not be a distinction between the last two because both come out of the same place when it comes to a piece of information, an idea, or a person: derision. What this means in functional terms is that the distinction is minimal at worst and functionally meaningless at best. However, what does define the line between legitimate, good faith criticism and spite politics? Let’s take the example of the ill-fated Presidential candidacy of Michael Bloomberg.
Legitimate criticism of Bloomberg could almost certainly be had, and there were plenty of policies, thoughts, and ideas of Mr. Bloomberg’s that one could take aim at. For instance, take the stop-and-frisk policies instituted by New York City police during Bloomberg’s tenure in office as the Mayor of that city. Talking about the merits of said policy, its failures, and the ensuing backlash and mistrust that the policy caused between the NYPD and minority communities is genuinely in good faith. Criticism of the policy constitutes a cogent belief that Mayor Bloomberg’s prior support for policies could have an impact on his relations with minority communities which make up a sizable portion of the Democratic base. Then there are criticisms of Mr. Bloomberg’s wealth-the very statement of “I won’t vote for a billionaire” which crosses the line into clear bad-faith criticism. To be clear, this criticism is bad-faith not because it doesn’t touch on objective fact, rather, it is bad faith because it perpetuates a stereotype and reduces a person’s policies to merely a trait-not something we’d see if one were indeed trying to be civil.
So, where have we seen this relatively new phenomenon of the politics of spite? The answer is, really, quite everywhere.
First, we’ve seen it concertedly on the left. This is a particularly cogent concern today with the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination. The drift towards the politics of spite on the left has largely come from his base of support. Evidence of this can come in the actions of Bernie advisers Briahna Gray and David Sirota who have both acted in bad faith towards supporters of other Democratic presidential candidates at different points during the race. Evidence can also be seen in the use of the snake emoji at Elizabeth Warren supporters, largely by supporters of Bernie Sanders, and in the use of the term “Mayo Pete” to describe Pete Buttigieg. Another rather damning use of trolling has been the parade of viral videos depicting younger supporters in various states of emotional distress about the candidacy of Joe Biden-including one Tik Tok video of a young woman, who is visibly quite upset, chanting “Please. Don’t. Make Me Vote. For Joe. Bi-den..”
One could argue that Joe Biden has his flaws as a candidate, I’m not going to deny that he does, but I will say that the arguments advanced against him and other Democratic candidates from the left have largely been in bad faith. At least on policy, there is the argument to be made that Joe Biden is still to the right of most Democrats on healthcare, but the oft-repeated line about those who don’t support universal healthcare leaving millions to die each year miss the mark. This is not because they are untrue, it is that the scale described that has largely been exaggerated. It is not because these arguments are not genuine points of concern for many on the Left, it is because these arguments do not attempt to find common ground. Simply put, arguments on this debate, and many others, have not been about persuasion of others but about denigration of others.
While I mention the Left, I must also mention the Right. Not because it’s out of a sense of fairness, but because the Right must answer for the same sin, almost doubly so. Politics on the Right, at least in the Charlie Kirk and Ben Shapiro age, have not been about substantial policy, they have been about “owning” the Left. Well what does “owning” mean? It means, simply, spite. It means belittling the Left and those who advocate for it, “owning” means the denigration of Left-leaning candidates for political office with false smears (including that one Representative from Minnesota is not actually an American citizen!), and it has meant that any truly productive policy goal has been set back in the interest of scoring points on the Internet.
Now, the phenomenon of the politics of spite is more common on the Right largely because the Right has wholeheartedly embraced it. To show a very long example in a few words: the President’s Twitter feed. It very often combines trolling of various prominent figures on the Left (Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Pocahontas (Senator Elizabeth Warren), etc.) with lusty trolling action regarding potential actions to be undertaken by the White House in areas as diverse as military action and public health. Another example would be the proliferation of the anti-anti Trump media, folks such as Stephen L. Miller, Hugh Hewitt, the Twitter user known as Foo, and media such as The Washington Examiner and The Daily Wire remain blithely ignorant of the President’s various failings or attempting to what about them. Both are bad faith, as it should be evident.
However, the simple culture shift towards “owning the libs” is something that was evident as early as 2016 and it’s something that can be seen among younger supporters of the President to this day. How, you might ask? Through the complete and lack of actual knowledge about the world at large, of policy, or of anything approximating politics outside of “The Wall” and the President’s signature “Make America Great Again” slogan.
I’m not going to say that every member of the Right is involved in this perpetuation of truly awful faith. I will say that the view of being nasty to the other side as a means of attaining victory is a view that is not just peripheral, it is mainstream now too.
There are other areas wherein we can see the creation of the politics of spite as well. Trolling by traditionalist Catholics online, such as law professor Adrian Vermuele and his now infamous diatribe just last week in The Atlantic calling for what amounts to an integralist state with his form of Catholicism not just regnant, but dominant. However, the concern trolling from some defenders of Vermuele state that his vision is just that, a vision. He’s been very clear, however, that he views his beliefs as being much more than his idealist vision for the world but rather something that he wants to see come to fruition.
Another area where the politics of spite, trolling and genuine bad faith, have come to rear their ugly heads lately lies in the neoliberal “Globe Twitter”-social democrat “Sock Twitter” split on Twitter. The dispute arose over some of the right members of “Globe Twitter” using “helicopter memes”, a reference to former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. If you’re familiar with the history of Pinochet’s rule over Chile, you are aware of why this is a bad, bad thing. However, it also serves as vice signaling compared to the more explicit examples of virtue signaling offered earlier. In this case, the disputes arise not out of perceived superiority (hence, virtue signaling) but because of disgust and anger with a set of actions (hence, vice signaling). What it does show, however, is that the very culture of spite, which often results in splits in communities (well, it has in the case of the right), has permeated down the cracks to smaller communities.
We can think of the movement of the politics of spite as sort of being like an umbrella with a hole in it during a rainstorm. At first, the water will slough off the sides, but eventually, it finds its way to fall on our heads and persons through the hole.
So, why call it “the politics of spite”? It’s actually quite simple. The motivation in every single case I’ve illustrated is not to grow the community, to seek accommodation, or to put an end to immature and gross behavior. The motivation in every single case is to signal that one is above another for some reason, be it real or imagined.
The consequences to the permeation of the politics of spite are quite simple. We will all continue to recede into our own bubbles and into the dreaded idea of a mental ivory tower. This will not be out of necessity, rather, it will be out of a deep-seated resentment towards others or the belief that everyone else but one’s own group is actively engaging in bad faith arguments and trolling against a group for no other reason than to do it and to signal some superiority.
As someone who backed the Never Trump movement, there were friends of mine I made as part of the movement, who I’ve disavowed, blocked, and flat out won’t give the time of day to. This is partly because they’ve begun to engage in the petty politics of spite, it’s also been because I’ve noticed shifts which suggest that perhaps their “Never” meant something more along the lines of “Not This Time”. What this means in short is that another plausible explanation for the use of the politics of spite is simply as a cover for intellectual dishonesty. This intellectual dishonesty may honestly be linked to very real changes in their values and beliefs, but it may also be linked to a desire to be more among the in-crowd and not among the out crowd.
There is another consequence too to the use of the politics of spite, it is the very death of any chance of any sort of dialogue between diametrically opposed sides. The use of reductive arguments which automatically assume the worst about a person’s position, think “socialist!” or “you hate women!”, are simply going to become the norm rather than the exception used by the radicalized extremes. While that may seem merely a theoretical concern, it’s not. It means more polarization, more partisanship, and ultimately fewer solutions which help all of us.
What the politics of spite really shows is not what unites us, though the concept really unites everyone at this time, but it shows how far we’ve gotten off the path of genuine concern for all of us. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s a way back on.
It should be noted that not just one side, person, or movement is truly responsible for the breakdown and debasement of this term. Instead, the death of “civility” was a collective action all of us undertook as a sort of solemn bond between us. We chose, as a society, that pursuing higher goods like compromise, respect for the lives, values, and opinions of others, and fairness were…well, not our own. We’re reaping the bitter fruit of that decision today.
The term “civility” is dead, as dead as the values it stood for. Over the last five years, we’ve decided that the thing we wanted most for ourselves and others was not our share of the pie; we wanted revenge and muckraking instead. That has led us to some pretty bleak places: to conspiracies like Q-Anon that are so honestly out there that its followers cannot be reached but by those who have bought into the conspiracy, the death of the term has led to bitter primary battles and rancor where there should be unity, and it has also led to a sort of ivory tower syndrome-we’ve all decided that the only way we’ll listen to others is through an assault which challenges our whole way of thing. I’m not optimistic about reversing the tide, but I can at least call it what it is: the politics of spite.