To the many accomplishments for which the late Margaret Thatcher is now rightly being celebrated, let us add one that is usually less remarked but no less remarkable: she inaugurated the era of modern political polarization.
They called her Margaret Torture and “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher.” In the Washington Monthly in May 1988, Polly Toynbee asked, “Is Margaret Thatcher a Woman?” The singer-songwriter Elvis Costelloperhaps summed it up best in Tramp the Dirt Down:“there’s one thing I know/ I’d like to live / Long enough to savor/ That’s when they finally put you in the ground/ I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” It’s not one of his catchier nor more popular offerings, but it’s heartfelt. And it’s printable, unlike the lyrics from many a Brit punk rocker on the subject of Thatcher.
Political hatred, of course, predates Margaret Thatcher. Nixon-hatred had a pedigree in the United States dating back to the 1950s. But then again, Nixon got his comeuppance, resigning the presidency in disgrace as the Watergate cover-up unraveled.
Most important, few were those who had any genuine affection for Nixon. What distinguishes the modern era from the incivility of the past is its polarized character. No one denies that Thatcher was widely hated in the UK for retooling the economy, breaking the trade unions and going to war over the Falkland Islands. But she was also widely loved, and on the basis of the same set of facts. One side sees her as a destroyer of communities and families and a betrayer of the egalitarian premise of democracy. The other side celebrates her for her commitment to the revitalization of Britain at home and abroad. Beginning with Thatcher, the more your opponents hate you, the more your supporters love you.
The lovers even have a name for what afflicts the haters: It’s called “derangement syndrome.” The idea is that the opponents of a favored politician have become so passionate in their hatred that they have lost their marbles, throwing aside coherence in favor of rhetorical hissing and spitting.
The partisans of each side readily embrace the view that their opposite numbers have gone mad. Thus we have had, variously, “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” “Obama Derangement Syndrome,” “Palin Derangement Syndrome,” and “Hillary Derangement Syndrome.” My research is still ongoing, but Jonathan Chait, writing in the New Republic in 2003 on “Why I Hate George W. Bush,” may have been the index case for what defenders of the 43rd president regarded as an outbreak of derangement among Democrats.
Chait’s biggest contribution to our understanding of the workings of derangement syndrome consisted in his reveling in his hatred of Bush. But surely the only reason that “Clinton Derangement Syndrome” refers to the former Secretary of State, not her husband, is that the diagnosis was not codified until after Bill Clinton left office. That its symptoms were presenting among Republicans in the 1990s is not in doubt.
But just as dubious as the hyperpartisan paroxysms that now go by the name of “derangement syndrome” is the accusation that one’s opponents are deranged. Maybe some actually are, but most are certainly not. What they are is passionate in the advocacy of what they believe, happily ensconced in a political system where disputes find expression in contending polemics rather than in hails of gunfire.
Modern democratic politics is uncivil and noisy, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon. Thanks to the internet, not only has opinion been democratized, in the sense of the dismantling of barriers of entry into political debate; opinion has also become further polarized, in the sense of one’s ability to associate only with those with whom one agrees. It’s the wikiculture equivalent of what has been going on with the political parties themselves, as the Democratic party has become more uniformly liberal in outlook and the GOP more conservative.
Margaret Thatcher presided over massive social change in Britain. In her pursuit of her vision, she brooked no uncertainty. “There is no alternative,” she liked to say, when of course there always was. She was certain not only that her opponents would revile her, but that her supporters would rally to her cause. The polarization of modern politics is part of her legacy as well.