There is a kind of fan who is indeed a fanatic, for whom every call against his team represents an occasion to doubt the competence or impartiality of the officials. Then there is the kind of fan who is a fancier, who may root for a team but whose real passion is for the sport itself. The fanatic is the one who screams at the referee that the receiver was pushed out of bounds by the defender, and so the catch should count. The fancier is the one who calmly points out that the rule was changed a few years ago, so if the receiver is forced out, there is no catch.
The continuing political debate between those who demand an even-handed approach and those who think you should reserve your attacks for your enemies tracks precisely this distinction between fanatics and fanciers. Probably we should be unsurprised. Evolutionary psychologists insist that the dividing of the world into “us” and “them” is natural to us, a genetic holdover from our hunter-gatherer days, when we shared with our fellows and fought off attacks from strangers. We are psychologically comfortable, the theory runs, only when we know who is on our side and who isn’t, and can draw clean dividing lines between the two. So strong is this habit, researchers say, that we tend to discount suffering among members of the “out” group while highlighting it among members of the “in” group.
Instinct, then, makes us fanatics rather than fanciers. Fair enough. But the force of civilization is supposed to be away from instinct in the direction of reason. There was a time in living memory when both parties included respected senior members whose esteem for institutions and processes led them to become voices of moderation.
I remember an occasion during the Reagan administration when a relatively minor breach of Senate tradition (not even a written rule) would have allowed the Democrats to defeat the nomination of Daniel Manion, whom they bitterly opposed, for a federal appellate judgeship. A junior Democratic member tried to go against the tradition, but was immediately restrained by his more senior colleagues, for whom the prerogatives of the institution were more important than prevailing in the battle. It is difficult to imagine such a thing happening today.
Stanley Fish asserts that when great moral issues are at stake, the correct governing principle is not the Golden Rule but “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” I think he may be right — as long as we are thinking only of the truly great moral divides, such as the fight over slavery in the 19th century. The trouble with contemporary politics is that partisan fanatics make every issue the occasion for a double standard; and we have all too few fanciers to correct them.