Virginia car-service driver Cecil Rust glances at the rearview mirror and asked his passenger, "Why is politics so mean now?" Halfway across the country, Angela Warren of St. Louis says she will skip her first presidential election out of disgust, "There's so much hate."
In Miami, Carol Agrait stirs sweetener into his Cuban coffee and shares these bitter thoughts: "Man, it's a mean political season."
Indeed, it is.
From the rhetoric of the candidates and their advertising to the conspiracy theories and invectives trafficked on the Internet by untold partisans, the political process is awash in acrimony. The reasons vary.
It's a close election in a divided nation and the stakes are high, war in Iraq and on terror, just three years after the deadliest attack on U.S. soil. President Bush has governed from the right after a disputed election. The previous president, Democrat Bill Clinton, lied about having sex in the Oval Office with an intern and was impeached for it.
Bush and Clinton galvanized their rival partisans.
And through all this rose the Internet, a megaphone for every disgruntled, disenchanted or disturbed individual who wants to make a point. The "Silent Majority" is bellowing.
"Bush is a monster," read an e-mail signed DBarrett and sent to news organizations after the first debate. "Kerry is a craggy-faced puke," read another.
It doesn't stop there.
- Vice President Dick Cheney curses a lawmaker on the Senate floor. Alan Keyes calls Cheney's lesbian daughter a selfish hedonist.
- Republicans question Sen. John Kerry's combat medals. Democrats denounce Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.
- Kerry calls Bush's Republicans "the most crooked ... lying group I've ever seen."
These and other invectives reverberated in the echo chamber of cable TV's 24-hour news cycle, another innovation that has reinvented politics in the last generation.
Elizabeth Ossoff, an expert in political psychology at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., said America has seen worse, "If you look at what John Adams said about Thomas Jefferson, it was pretty nasty stuff", but not in awhile. She attributes the spike in hate partly to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We had sort of an us-against-them mentality and that has spilled over into the way people justify the choices they're making in politics," she said.
Put that atop a shaky economy, a controversial war in Iraq and a rapidly changing culture rife with anxiety, and you've got a potent political psychosis.
"When anxieties rise, people try to find a way to make themselves feel better. And one way to feel better is to try to find a scapegoat," Ossoff said.
Bush is the Democrats' scapegoat. Polls show a significant amount of Kerry's support comes from Democrats who are motivated by their hatred of the president, not their loyalty to Kerry.
And so it goes:
- A television ad by a Democratic interest group compares Bush to Adolf Hitler.
- Former President Bush calls filmmaker Michael Moore a curse word and "a slimeball."
- Cheney suggests that electing Kerry will make the nation more vulnerable to attacks.
- Kerry mentions Cheney's openly gay daughter, Mary, in the final presidential debate to score a political point on gay rights. "This is not a good man," retorts Cheney's wife, Lynne. "What a cheap and tawdry political trick."
It can border on the comical. Internet partisans spread unsubstantiated rumors that a bulge in the back of Bush's suit coat was a transmission device allowing his aides to feed him answers during the first debate.
Big issues fuel bitter words
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said both parties deserve blame for the escalation of evisceration, but part of it is the sign of the times.
"The big issues are so hard, so complicated. Health care is complicated. Immigration is complicated. Iraq is complicated," she said. "It's easier to get your arms around whether President Bush is a dummy who had his lines fed to him. It's easier to think John Kerry is a fraud because of what some guys from Vietnam say."
"These are easy labels, which are seductive when you're trying to grapple with issues that are so large and full of nuance," the governor said.
Politicians are simply following the public's lead. A nation that coins the phrase "road rage" and watches reality TV shouldn't be surprised when its elected officials are less than civil.
And when voters' are evenly divided, as they are in this presidential election, the tough slog for victory can bring out the worst in candidates and their allies.
"Contempt has become legitimized and institutionalized in American politics," said Stanley A. Renshon, a psychoanalyst and political scientist at the City University in New York. "The volume of it and frequency is all very new."