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Why Do People Who Disagree with Me Keep Not Going Away?

by Michael Austin, published

"We must mistrust utopias: they usually end in holocausts."—Mario Vargas Llosa


I read a horrific book this week. It was about a group of people who pledged their lives to a violent warlord who claimed to speak for God. They all made a secret covenant with the warlord to murder an entire town of people they had never met. When their leader called them together for their last instructions, he told them to make sure that they killed every man, woman, and child in the entire town. If they failed to do this—even if they spared small children out of a misplaced sense of mercy—then God would strike them all dead.

The book I am referring to is the Book of Deuteronomy (in Robert Alter’s excellent recent translation); the warlord was named Moses. And as the ensuing books of the Bible go on to show, the Israelites did their best to follow their orders. But they failed. They left enough Canaanites alive that, six hundred years later, the Lord still decided to strike them down just like Moses said He would.

The bans in Deuteronomy and Joshua are not atypical of the ancient world, of course. They were all-too-common back in the day. Completely wiping out an enemy was usually seen as the best way to live in peace. And the idea is not exactly old fashoned--as anyone familiar with recent genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Somalia can tell you. We are tribal creatures with millions of years of evolution telling us that we must completely destroy people who are not like us so that we can live in peace without them.

We think this way about our own political opponents too, though most of us don’t actually want to kill them with our own hands.  We do, though, constantly imagine a political future without them. We are absolutely sure that if everybody in the country were just smarter or more moral, there wouldn’t be any of “them.” And we are awfully quick to predict their political demise.

In just the last month, we have seen this in both major parties. In September and October, when the government shut down for two weeks, half of the Internet was speculating that Republicans would never recover. Polls showed that people blamed Republicans far more than Democrats. People on my side of the aisle were rubbing their hands greedily for what they were sure would be a blowout in 2014. Nancy Pelosi was already measuring curtains.

But now it is a whole month later, and it is the Democrats who aren’t going to be here next term. We hear that the Obamacare rollout was a disaster (and, yes, the Obamacare rollout was a disaster). Democrats are now in “deep political trouble.” People have finally seen Obama for what he is, and America will finally come to its senses and get rid of the Democrats.

That is how the fantasy always goes. We are so tied to the most recent news story (and its attendant blog posts and Facebook memes) that we ignore wide swaths of history and reasonable probabilities for the future. Stir in the almost paralyzing confirmation bias that all humans suffer from, and you get an almost constant expectation that the other side is going to disappear all of a sudden and leave us somewhere near Utopia.

But it never works out that way. Other sides don’t disappear without a great deal of violence—and (as the Israelites learned the hard way) usually not even then. Our Constitution, and the political process that it created, presumes that there will always be people who disagree with us. And this is the problem with the contemporary slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners, stick-to-our-guns-and-refuse-to-compromise approach to politics. These tactics only work if you can make the people who disagree with you go away. And not even Moses could pull that off.

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