Politics is Cruelty

In his magisterial Making Comics, Scott McCloud provides a profound exploration of human emotions.  Anatomically speaking, there really are exactly six primary emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.  McCloud even lists all of the facial muscles involved, but his visuals speak a thousand words each.

The six primary emotions, like the six primary colors, can all be combined.  You can combine joy and fear to get “desperation.”  You can combine joy and sadness to get “faint hope.”  And you can combine joy and anger to get… cruelty.  Take a look!

Spooky, right?  Yet all McCloud is doing is merging all of the facial muscles of anger with all of the facial muscles of joy.

Now let’s think about political emotion.  Virtually every leader offers joy.  I’m going to feed the children, heal the sick, and defend our borders.  But virtually no leader offers unadulterated joy.  Instead, politicians almost automatically combine hopeful promises with threats against enemies.  If anyone gets in the way of our quest to feed the children, heal the sick, and defend our borders, let them beware.  When pure evil stands between us and utopia, we push back.  With all our righteous might.  Because evil makes us angry.

To take one crystal clear example, here’s a 2020 Elizabeth Warren poster.  The top slogan evokes joy: “Dream Big.”  The bottom slogan evokes anger: “Fight Hard.”  Quintessential politics.

Without McCloud, you might sense a contradiction between these promises of joy and threats of anger.  But even as a matter of basic anatomy, human beings are entirely capable of feeling joy and anger all at once.  And to repeat, we have a name for this emotional fusion: Cruelty.

Cruelty is the main emotion that politicians pander to.  And cruelty is what every politician strives to deliver.  They don’t want to make everyone happy.  They want to make their friends happy by making their enemies suffer.  Which requires them to not only identify enemies, but create an endless queue of enemies lest they run out.

That’s why totalitarian states, after they imprison and and murder all their admitted opponents, never declare final victory.  Instead, they launch a new search for enemies among their so-called friends.  Capitalist roaders.  Trotskyists.  Rootless cosmopolitans.  To declare final victory would be to abandon anger.  And to abandon anger is to abandon politics.  Cruelty is the lifeblood of power-hunger.

An old adage warns us that, “It is easier to destroy than create.”  Once you accept cruelty as the driving emotion of politics, you can see why politics as such is a trainwreck.  Why?  Because it is vastly easier to attack your enemies than to build a good society.  Maduro and Ortega are, in a sense, successful politicians.  Why?  Because they’ve spent their careers battling their hated foes.  They’ve driven their countries into the ground.  They’re further from prosperity and peace than ever.  But they have given their merry warriors an epic struggle.

Some years ago, I wrote a list of “apolitical reasons to hate politics.”  To that list, I would now like to add, “Cruelty rules.”  Politics doesn’t just unleash human sadism.  It anoints this ugly emotion.  And warns us that if we refuse to find joy in anger, anger in joy will soon find us.

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Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, named “the best political book of the year” by the New York Times, and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN.