Birthers, truthers, paranoids, conspiracists — the whole angry, resentful, frightened mob of right wingers who make up a good portion of the Republican base scares the wholly living hell out of most of the rest of us. They exist on a different plane of reality — uncomfortable with deep thinking, irrational when their delusions are challenged, and unable to climb out of the echo chamber in which they find comfort and support with other like minded crazies.
Worse than who and what they are, the establishment Republicans and even other rational conservatives tolerate them, dismiss them as inconsequential, or actively encourage them in hopes of using their energy, activism, and money to win office.
I categorize the crazies, recognizing there is overlap in and redundancy in my taxonomy:
1. The Birthers. Still alive and kicking and insisting that either a) Obama wasn’t born here; or b) he is an illegitimate president because he’s not a “natural born citizen.” They’ve only got 4 more years to prove their case.
2. Conspiracists. Runs the gamut from the birther issue mentioned above to the idea that hundreds of reputable scientists are colluding to cook the books on global warming. Several prominent congressmen - Michele Bachmann among them — have joined this group by wondering if Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s close aide, isn’t a Muslim Brotherhood plant.
3. Anti-Science crackpots. Enter the evangelical right who dismisses evolution, the Big Bang Theory, as well as other right wingers who worry about vaccinations and are convinced a woman can’t get pregnant from rape because her body automatically shuts down to prevent it.
4. Anti-intellectual. Dismissing out of hand any criticism from anyone who they believe isn’t a conservative. They are suspicious of anyone who went to an Ivy League school or who thinks for a living, and they reflexively reject nuance and logic because if you don’t feel it in your gut, you’re probably a squishy moderate.
5. Paranoids. Pure Hofstadter. Read.
6. Cry “Communist!” and let slip the dogs of war! Is there anything loopier about the crazies than their belief that the US is turning into a Marxist dictatorship? Sheesh.
It is an open question how large this segment of “conservatives” might be. Being in a better position than most to hazard an intelligent guess, I would put the percentage at more than 25% but less than 35%. I don’t believe any polls on the matter for the simple reason that the way questions about birtherism or socialism are formulated sweeps up many on the right who have questions about such things, but don’t give them much credence.
So, how much did fear and loathing of the GOP crazies by ordinary voters contribute to the party’s debacle on Tuesday?
On Wednesday, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray said the decisive Senate victories for her party had “proved to Republicans that extremists are dooming their party to disaster.”
“If Republicans want to follow the Tea Party off a political cliff, that’s their prerogative,” Murray said on a conference call with reporters. “But we will not let them take America off a cliff.”
Sorry, but it’s far more complicated than that. The self identified “Tea Party” has many faces, many factions — some of whom are rational libertarians, thoughtful federalists, or plain old Main Street Republicans.
But there is no doubt that the energy, the dynamism, and the soul of the Tea Party movement can be found in the angry, contorted faces of its members screaming about “Communism” and “Socialism” at rallies across the land. They are a fraternity of, for the most part, middle aged, Middle Class angry white males who believe they see the country they grew up in slipping away. Their vision of what America was like — a vision that obscures or ignores the more unseemly aspects of American society in decades past — lives on in Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” (a phrase The Gipper stole from Puritan leader John Winthrop). It’s a precious, if completely fanciful vision of an America that never was, but is embraced because it validates the sincere patriotic feelings felt by most ordinary Americans. They fear change because it is unsettling to have America’s perfection challenged in such a stark and obvious way.
America is changing — has always changed — and this has always unnerved some of us. It’s too easy to explain it away by saying that racism is the motivating factor in their hate. By limiting one’s explanation to the loss of white privilege, you lose sight of the traditionalist nature of their opposition to President Obama and his leftist allies.
As we have seen throughout history, cultural despair can lead to quiescence—to the withdrawal from politics and the building of counter-cultural institutions—or to hyper-activism—to the building of self-consiously counter-revolutionary political movements that exhibit contempt for democracy and treat opponents as enemies on an almost existential level. Maybe the kind of stuff I quoted above just reflects an emotional hangover from an election conservatives convinced themselves they were going to win. But it’s hardly new; much of the Tea Party Movement and its “constitutional conservative” ideology has involved a strange sort of anti-Americanism cloaked in super-patriotism. It wouldn’t be surprising if the same people reacted to the re-election of Barack Obama by taking their hostility to America as it is to another level.
For better or worse, the Tea Party has become the Tao of the GOP. Trying to remove them would sap most of the energy and activism from the party, which is why you don’t see too many establishment or mainstream Republicans trying to marginalize them.
But despite Kilgore’s use of scare quotes for “constitutional conservative” — as if this isn’t a valid philosophical construct or something to be feared or belittled — there is actually a purpose to the Tea Party’s obsession with the Constitution. The Kilgore’s of the world definitely don’t want to debate this, but the notion of “limited” government is at the heart of the Tea Party critique of the American government. Many of them have almost a biblical belief in the sanctity of the Constitution, that it must be taken literally, word for word like the Bible, and if something like national health care doesn’t appear in it, it is by definition “unconstitutional.” Others have a childlike understanding of the meaning of federalism, or the commerce clause, that makes them suspicious of anything that augments those concepts.
But despite all this, they are the only Americans willing to debate the limits of power granted to the federal government by our founding document. In this respect, the left, who prefer to keep their options open when it comes to defining limits on federal power, finds it convenient to tar tea partiers as racists, or authoritarians, or, as Kilgore does, anti-American. Some may be all of those, but to dismiss the argument they are making with scare quotes and name calling fails to recognize the value in what, in their own misguided way, they are trying to accomplish. I would venture to say that not since the ratification debates of 1787-88 has the Constitution been so seriously studied and debated. It’s a debate that needs to happen if there is any hope of maintaining a healthy balance between individual freedom and the needs of society to progress.
But the Tea Party does not represent the totality of the GOP crazies problem. Radical Christians who want to deny basic rights to gays, and even to women, are a far larger quandary. They vote. And no candidate for the presidency who runs on the Republican ticket can avoid toeing the line on their issues. If Mitt Romney had stood up to them by maintaining his position on gay marriage, abortion and other social issues, it is very likely he would not have been nominated. It’s at least partly the reason that governors like Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie refused to enter the GOP field in 2012. Catering to the concerns of people who believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago proves to be too much for some.
It would be a dream solution for the evangelicals, the tea party, and the other crazies to form their own party, as Herman Cain suggested:
Herman Cain, the former presidential candidate who still has a robust following via his popular talk radio program and speaking tours, today suggested the most clear step to open civil war: secession. Appearing on Bryan Fischer’s radio program this afternoon, Cain called for a large faction of Republican Party leaders to desert the party and form a third, more conservative party.
“I never thought that I would say this, and this is the first time publicly that I’ve said it: We need a third party to save this country. Not Ron Paul and the Ron Paulites. No. We need a legitimate third party to challenge the current system that we have, because I don’t believe that the Republican Party … has the ability to rebrand itself,” Cain said.
Rush Limbaugh agrees:
Rush Limabugh, two months ago, echoed the sentiment. ”If Obama wins, let me tell you what it’s the end of: the Republican Party. There’s gonna be a third party that’s gonna be oriented toward conservatism,” he said.
Well, some people’s idea of “conservatism” anyway.
Of course, a third party of anti-abortion and anti-gay activists, evangelical Christians, radical anti-government Objectivists, and paranoid loons would never win a national election. But then, neither would the GOP. This wouldn’t exactly be a split between ideologues and pragmatists, but it would clearly define the divisions in the conservative movement and Republican party in such a way that one or both parties might attract enough Democrats who may be tiring of the relentless liberalism currently in vogue on the left and would seek a different brand of populism or moderate politics.
But for the present, the crazies and the GOP establishment need each other. And unless the pragmatists realize just how much of a drag the crazies are on their political fortunes, the GOP is likely to continue losing mainstream voters who look in askance on a party that tolerates such nuttiness.