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.
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.