Comparative Fringes

Steve Benen is a bit disappointed that I didn’t “follow [Charles] Johnson’s lead and reject what’s become of the contemporary political right” in my post responding to his departure.  In particular, he thinks I’m too easy on the conservative fringe groups and understate their hold on the movement.

barackhusseinobama I continue to think this is a mistaken approach to the ideological landscape. It plays into the conventional wisdom — “both sides” have their share of nutjobs — but it doesn’t account for the qualitative differences or the reach/influence of both contingents.

It’s easy, I suppose, to just assume that the left has some nutjobs, and the right has some nutjobs, but that all of this is unrelated to political mainstream of both major political parties. Wacky liberals said ridiculous things under Bush; wacky conservatives are saying ridiculous things now. Move along; nothing to see here.

But this surface-level look is, at best, incomplete. Code Pink and Truthers don’t have, and never have had, any meaningful role in progressive politics or the Democratic Party. Love these groups or hate them, we’re talking about a fairly small group, with limited-to-non-existent influence. Indeed, Democratic Party leaders and officials take pains to keep the groups at arm’s length. It’s not as if leading Dem candidates, seeking high-profile offices, go out of their way to seek Cindy Sheehan’s endorsement.

On the other hand, leading Republicans at every level can’t do enough to express their support for the Tea Party crowd, and love nothing more than talking to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. We have GOP members of Congress, even some of the party’s leadership, endorsing all manner of unhinged nonsense, ranging from Birther questions to state nullification.

I’ve been pretty vocal over the years about the excesses in the Right blogosphere, conservative talk radio and punditry (in particular Ann Coulter, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck), and the rise of the populists like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.  And I’ve expressed my displeasure with the Religious Right from the earliest days of the blog (and, indeed, well before to a more limited audience). Even in this morning’s post, I concede some of Johnson’s points have merit.

Still, Steve’s comparisons are apples to oranges.

The “Tea Party crowd” has some cranks in it, to be sure, but it’s a pretty mainstream movement in goals, tactics, and membership.  I’ve criticized them for shouting down Members of Congress and others in town hall meetings.  But they’re not of a piece with Code Pink and their odious tactics.  So, of course respectable Democratic leaders aren’t going to publicly associate themselves with the organization.  (Sixteen of them reportedly got VIP tickets from their Congressmen to disrupt Bush’s second inaugural, but it’s not clear if they simply went through channels or there was active collusion.)

The Truthers are indeed something of a fringe, although there have been a handful of prominent Democrats giving voice to that nonsense.  Much more mainstream were the Democrats who think Diebold stole the 2004 election.

There’s not really a Democratic equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, who’s sui generis.  Keith Olbermann is perhaps the closest analogue in style and Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart in popularity and influence.   In all cases, though, politicians will naturally go out of their way to flatter popular media hosts who will give them free air time and exposure.

It’s true that there are a handful of Republican congressmen who are embarrassing.  The Democrats no longer have Cynthia McKinney and Jim Traficant in their ranks and Maxine Waters has been off my radar screen for a while.   But there are 535 people in the House and Senate combined; there are bound to be some yahoos.  I just don’t see them as serious contenders for the leadership of the party, whether as prospective presidential nominees or House or Senate leaders.

Are the inmates running the asylum in the Republican Party?   I don’t think we’re there yet, although there are days when I have my doubts.  But right now I’m willing to chalk it up to a combination of a political climate that’s been hyper-polarized for years, making the out party seem insane.  (Recall Jane’s Law: “The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.”)  Add to that dire economic times and a 24/7/365 Twitter environment where crazy thoughts can get amplified and seem more prevalent than they are, and you have a recipe for this sort of thing.

My sense is that things will swing back in the other direction fairly soon because that’s what has always happened in the past.  But, while I don’t think it’ll happen, it’s not entirely inconceivable that Sarah Palin will be the 2012 Republican nominee.  In which case, I’ll look for other options.  Until then, the only thing I can do is point out the crazies and argue for a saner path.

Photo: BoingBoing

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DocJ: Arguing for a saner path and pointing out the crazies is a great idea, but you are of a higher intellect than the petulant children who have made a hobby of this. You actually have ideas to propose, and I’d rather you kept to that. Not that I’m your editor or anything like that, but that’s why I read you.

    Focus too much on the crazies and you may find yourself like Balloon Juice. That’s a warning, not a compliment.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Focus too much on the crazies and you may find yourself like Balloon Juice. That’s a warning, not a compliment.

    I don’t think I’m going down that path. I’ve been criticizing the Coulters and Robertsons since the earliest days of OTB.

  3. Actually nothing rebuts Benen’s point better than the resulting comments at his post — defenders of Sheehan, insults against Joyner, and reiterations that the Right tout court is wacko bad-faith nutjobs. And Washington Monthly is not by any means the most extreme leftist site or especially known for harboring wackos. My favorite comment was:

    “The difference is that when the left’s leading figures speak out harshly, it’s almost always because they don’t like the status quo and want to make things better. When the right’s leading figures speak out, it’s usually to whip up rage or scare the shit out of people instead of being constructive.”

    Self-righteousness and cluelessness like that just can’t be made up.

  4. I don’t think I’m going down that path. I’ve been criticizing the Coulters and Robertsons since the earliest days of OTB.

    To your credit, I think you haven’t gone nuts because you don’t expect the Coulters and Robertsons to change just because you disagree with them. You point them out, and move along.

  5. Did I miss any reference to independents?

    I think this graph makes it fair “Repub vs. Dem” a false dichotomy. The longer term trend is that Democrats and Republicans are both losing to “decline to states.”

  6. Steve Plunk says:

    I don’t get this at all. If fringe elements of the party get too extreme we should change our convictions and move toward the other party? I’m sorry but my belief in less government and lower taxes remains sound regardless of what others are up to. My support of candidates will be based upon how well they represent my interests, not who they spoke to last or were quoted by.

    I keep hearing about the crazy Tea Party crowd, Fox News, and Limbaugh but it all lacks substance. What’s wrong with protesting excess government spending? What’s wrong with hosting conservatives pundits? How about Rush? What specifically was said by him that makes him a crazy? See? It’s all essentially baseless when you get down to specifics.

    With all of this angst causing people to leave the Republican party why are the polls showing a shift the opposite way among the general population? This doesn’t pass the test of common sense. The party is not becoming any more conservative but rather more outspoken. The gentile class doesn’t like slumming with the loud mouth common folk and pompously talks of walking out. I see it as their failure to lead and say to them goodbye, farewell, and in the long run you’ll see you should never have left.

  7. An interesting text from wikipedia:

    Using the self-identification method of measuring political independence, surveys found a startling rise in the number of independent voters beginning in 1966.[32][36] In 1952, when modern polling on the issue began, the number of independent voters nationwide was 22 percent. By 1976, the number had risen more than half, to 36 percent of the electorate. Regionally, the rise of the independent voter was even more apparent. In the non-Deep South, the number of independent voters had risen from 22 percent to 37 percent. But in the Deep South, the number of independents rose steeply from 14 percent in 1952 to 32 percent in 1976 (and would rise even further, to 35 percent, by 1984).[2][44][45]

    Although the number of self-identified independents has fallen slightly in the 1990s and 2000s, about 30 percent of American voters still say they are independents (as measured by self-identification).[46]

  8. TangoMan says:

    Washington Monthly under Benen has really gone downhill from the days of Drum. It’s funny to read him complaining about the crazies taking over when his extremist viewpoint is a case in point about his argument, a point that he seems oblivious to.

    Secondly, any argument is weakened when the proponent sets out to define the terms of debate and to define normal. Dr. Joyner does a good job is addressing Benen’s tactics.

    But, while I don’t think it’ll happen, it’s not entirely inconceivable that Sarah Palin will be the 2012 Republican nominee. In which case, I’ll look for other options.

    The most fiscally conservative contender, with the record to back her bona fides, for the 2012 Republican nomination will turn you off from voting for Republicans? If your brand of conservatism doesn’t stand for small government, and I’m pretty certain that you’re not under the Big Tent for reasons of social conservative, then on what conservative planks do you rest your support for conservatism?

  9. steve says:

    I hope you can hang in there. The religious right had always bothered me, but it was foreign policy under early Bush that pushed me out, well the deficits too. The party needs realists IMHO. I would never have predicted the party would take the direction it did under early Bush. The person who most surprised me was Cheney. I read foreign policy stuff way more than I should, but with some time constraints. How the heck did I miss out on Cheney and his interventionist leanings? His Long War approach?

    I have come to think your analysis of Bush, supported by others of course, the most accurate. I do not recall you writing as much on Cheney as I think is deserved. Given his somewhat unusual route of staying in the fray after leaving office, I think you should re-evaluate his fundamental role in developing American foreign policy.


  10. Steve Verdon says:

    Benan, et. al. have forgotten Megan McArdle’s law regarding political parties:

    The party in power is smug and arrogant, the party out of power is crazy.

    Sure, NOW Sheehan and fellow loons have little or no pull within the Democratic party. But go back when Sheehan was first coming on scene there was alot of buzz about her. She even managed to get book deals, spots on the Kos website, etc.

    Amanda Marcotte, a pretty whacked out lefty, was put in charge of Senator John “How’s my Hair” Edward’s blog. Granted she was kicked pretty quickly for being a loon and carrying lots of baggage, but rumors I read was that it was Edward’s wife who liked her…and Edward’s wife has been known to post on Democratic Underground.

    I’d argue that Michael Moore has a pretty decent amount of heft as well. Dan Rather torpedoed his own career over Bush.

    Comparing the Republican Party now, to the Democratic Party now is either due to intellectually dishonesty or just plain old laziness. Compare the Republicans now to the Democrats right in 2000 or 2004.

  11. “Michael Moore has a pretty decent amount of heft.” Steve, I love it when you make fat jokes. It sure beats my calling jim Jabba The Marxist.

  12. Flit says:

    “I’d argue that Michael Moore has a pretty decent amount of heft as well.”

    And … right you are. Michael Moore sat in Jimmy Carter’s VIP box at the Dems’ copnvention in ’04. A host of senior lawmakers attended the DC premiere of F-911.

    And, while this is debatable, Moore arguably has had enough international influence to place him at the ballpark of being an imprecise analogue to Limbaugh’s … “heft.”

  13. artwebster says:

    I have to admit that there was a time when I liked Charles Johnson and in all honesty, it is probably because I agreed with him more in the past than I do now.

    However, when it comes to the “fringes” in the Democratic party they are mainstream. Don’t ever forget that almost the entire Democratic leadership showed up for the premier of Farenheit 9/11. Enough said.

  14. Marty says:

    It’s easy to point out the ‘media’ crazies and hold them up to ridicule, but the real problem on the conservative side is the active leadership has, by & large embraced and echoed the rantings of the crazies that you point out. “…a handful of Republican congressmen who are embarrassing”? I’d like to see more intellectual conservatives (and in the press) call out the likes of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Steve King, James Inhofe, Jeff Sessions, Mark Kirk, Tom Coburn, Mike Pence, Jim DeMint, Mike Enzi(I could go on) for parroting the BS coming out of the ‘crazies’ in the right wing media. a ‘handful’, indeed.

  15. PD Shaw says:

    Benan is simply wrong on the charge of false equivalence. Polls show that about the same proportion of Democrats believe in a 9/11 conspiracy as Republicans believe Obama is not a citizen. Worse, some Democrats believe Obama is not a citizen and some Republicans believe in a 9/11 conspiracy.

  16. I followed your links PD, and it looks like the independents show moderation in both studies, taking “sane” positions in both.

  17. PD Shaw says:

    John, I think independents only look relatively good to partisans. The link shows 18% of independents believe in a 9/11 conspiracy and 8% believe Obama is not a citizen.

  18. Heh, I guess that might be about how much we can hope for, and the human condition.

  19. Are the inmates running the asylum in the Republican Party? I don’t think we’re there yet, although there are days when I have my doubts.

    Yeah, that’s what the sane ones always think.

    It’s what the Rockefeller people thought in 1964, what the Scoop Jackson people thought in 1972, and of course reaching back a bit, what the mensheviks thought right before succumbing to lead poisoning or leaving for extended vacations in Siberia.

    Surely the spittle-flecked rageoholics, unreconstructed racists and paranoids who dominate the GOP will come to their senses. Because that’s what crazy people do: they spontaneously become sane.

  20. Steve Plunk says:

    Michael, sincerely, who exactly is one of the unreconstructed racists dominating the GOP? Such accusations need to include names and supporting facts.

  21. Steve Verdon says:


    On this doll, can you tell us where the bad GOP man touched you?

    I have to say your posts come across as spittle-flecked and filled with rage.

  22. Steve Plunk:


    And this.

    And right here in Orange County.

    That took all of about 30 seconds, which is all the time I have to point you to things you already know perfectly well.

  23. Steve Verdon:

    Excellent! You’re attempting to use humor.

  24. Steve Plunk says:


    I’m surprised that you think I would know about a racist email from the mayor of Los Alamitos. Hardly a dominating leader of the GOP. The staffer from a state legislator in Tennessee is not really dominating GOP thought either. It all comes down to Limbaugh and the like.

    Rush is an entertainer but he holds no position of power within the party. Some of his statements are insensitive, some are cruel, and some of the older ones are racist, I’ll give you that. I don’t listen to Rush so again it’s not something I would have already known.

    I wonder if Robert Byrd should be tossed from the senate because of his past racial transgressions? Jessie’s comment about New York’s Jewish population didn’t hurt him too much. The thing about Limbaugh is he must always be testing to limits to maintain his edge as an entertainer. I suspect people in that position will cross the line occasionally. Regardless, like I have already said, he holds no position within the party.

  25. Rush is an entertainer but he holds no position of power within the party.

    When you want to know who holds real power you look around to see whose ass is being kissed. There are more GOP lip imprints on Limbaugh’s rear end than on any other.

    Name a GOP elected official who is as powerful with the GOP rank and file. Boehner? McConnell? McCain? Who? The question answers itself: none of these actual elected officials wields a tenth of Limbaugh’s influence within the GOP.

    The only Republican with power to rival Limbaugh is Glenn Beck, followed by Sarah Palin.

  26. anjin-san says:

    Well, Palin is a wack job, and she was the VP nominee and is probably the most popular member of the GOP. ‘Nuff said.