As much as we bemoan our polarized politics, dislike for one’s political opponents is one of the most powerful engines that drives political participation. It isn’t necessarily wrong to be mad or think that the other side is nuts—all of us do, at some point or another. But that belief can lead partisans to some places that don’t do them any favors when it comes to making their case to the public.
We saw how last week, when the most memorable moment of a Republican presidential debate came not from one of the candidates but from the audience. As part of a question to Rick Perry about Texas’s administration of the death penalty, Brian Williams noted that during Perry’s tenure, the state has executed 234 prisoners, more than under any governor in America since the death penalty was restored. At the mention of this statistic, the crowd of Republicans burst into applause.
Some commentators saw this as an expression of bloodlust, the evidence of something dark and ugly within the souls of at least those gathered at the Reagan Library to watch their presidential contenders. I would argue, however, that more than anything it was a performative act. Those audience members knew they were on television and knew their opponents were watching. The applause was about identity more than policy—who they are, who their opponents are, and how they see each other. It was as much to say, “Liberals will hate it when we applaud for the death penalty!” as it was to express support for the death penalty itself.