Michael Wolraich's picture

    Colorado Primaries: For Whom the Bullhorn Tolls

    Some Democrats have cheered the success of right-wing extremists in the Colorado primaries yesterdays. They have a point. Republican gubernatorial nominee John Maes, who called Denver's bicycle program a "well-disguised" plot to destroy the "personal freedoms" of Denver's citizens by transforming the city into "a United Nations community," will now split the crazy vote with famed xenophobe Tom Tancredo, who blamed immigrants for electing "a committed socialist ideologue" to the White House. If Tancredo stays in the race, Democrat John Hickenlooper will likely sail into the governor's house.

    Meanwhile, the senate nomination of Ken Buck, who wants to eliminate Social Security and the Department of Education and who supports an Arizona-style anti-immigrant law, will make life easier for Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet, though Bennet is currently behind Buck in the polls.

    But Democrats who cheer the success of right-wing extremists are short-sighted. The extremist slate may lose a few elections this year, but history demonstrates that the success of the far right has not hurt the GOP in the long run. Instead, it has lowered expectations, turned fringe figures into viable candidates, and pressed the soupy gestalt of American politics ever rightward.

    In 1978, two brilliant if misguided conservative strategists set about remaking the Republican Party. Paul Weyrich, who founded the Moral Majority and the Heritage Foundation, joined forces with direct marketing genius Richard Viguerie in an effort to purge liberal "Rockefeller Republicans" from GOP. They knocked out senators Clifford Case (R-NJ) and Edward Brooke (R-MA). Both seats went to Democrats. In subsequent years, right-wing challenges dislodged the remaining liberal Republicans and generously handed almost the entire northeast to the Democratic Party. Then they started hunting the moderates.

    Moderate Republicans had controlled the GOP for decades by balancing the demands of the conservative and liberal wings of the party. With the liberals gone and moderates in decline, that balance collapsed. Conservatives took control of the Republican caucus and elected Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey to leadership positions in 1992. One Democratic analyst predicted that the 1992 conservative uprising would be detrimental to the GOP, arguing, "They are silencing the more moderate elements in their party and seeking an ideological purity from the right. A marginalized, right-wing Republican Party will be less competitive with Bill Clinton in 1996 than a more inclusive and centrist Republican Party."

    But that's not what happened. In the 1994 Republican Revolution, the GOP picked up fifty-four seats in the House and eight seats in the Senate, taking control of both houses for the first time since 1954.

    A few years later, the Republican Revolution crumpled under the weight of ethics scandals and election losses. A Chicago Tribune political analyst wrote, "The emerging cliche seems to be that the Republicans, having lost an unexpected five seats in the House and a couple of statehouses they thought were forever in their camp, will forge a new political message that is pragmatic and much less ideological, a shift in emphasis that will endear the party to moderate voters." Some Republicans looked to emulate the "pragmatic" approach of Governor George W. Bush, who had developed a reputation for governing by consensus in Texas.

    We all know how that turned out. Though Bush ran for president in 2000 as a "unifier," he soon embraced Karl Rove's "wedge issue" strategy to energize the base. In 2004, Bush lost the moderate vote by nine percentage points, but he won 84 percent of self-described conservatives, who made up a third of the electorate. Tom DeLay's Republican-controlled congress was even more extreme than Gingrich's, and conservative action groups like the Club for Growth continued to hunt down the few remaining moderates like Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-RI).

    When the Republicans finally lost their majority in 2006 due to voter dismay over lingering wars, a deteriorating economy, and a string of ethics scandals, strategists again counseled moderation and the "California way" of moderate Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    But conservatives would have none of it. The problem was not that the party was too conservative, they argued, it was that it wasn't conservative enough. "There's no doubt in my mind it was not a repudiation of conservatives but it was a repudiation of the Republican Party," argued Pat Toomey, leader of the Club for Growth. Rush Limbaugh concurred, "Republicans lost last night but conservatism did not." Instead, he blamed "blue-blood, country club, corporate type...Rockefeller-type," even though the Rockefeller Republicans had long since gone extinct.

    The Toomey-Limbaugh strategy clearly won over the GOP...again. Toomey is now the senate nominee in Pennsylvania, having previously forced Sen. Arlen Specter to flee to the Democrats. Many of Toomey's fellow Tea Party and Club for Growth backed candidates are even more extreme than he is. Some of these candidates may lose, but some will win, joining an elite group of paranoid extremists already in power--like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who has warned of a plot to establish a "one world currency" and "the eventual unraveling of our freedom"; Paul Broun (R-GA), who accused Obama of preparing a Nazi-like civilian security force to round up conservatives; Steve King (R-IA), who wants to abolish the IRS and attacked Obama for favoring black people; and Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who is concerned about federal legislation to prosecute Christians for "thought crimes." These men and women represent the future chairpersons of powerful congressional subcommittees. When the wheel of American politics turns again, as it invariably does, the most conservative and paranoia-prone GOP in recent history may well come to power with a popular mandate to "take back the country."

    So watch out what you wish for.

    I'm currently writing a book about right-wing paranoia, Blowing Smoke, to be published in October. For updates, click the I Like button on the book's fan page.



    You're right. Giddy from the smell of blood (and oil) in the water, many on the far right are over-reaching this year. But much as they would deny it, a process of natural selection will simply weed out the electorally incompetent. A few more election cycles, and you've got a coterie of savvy (though crazy) incumbents. Then they'll be a bloc that even the Democrats will have to at least placate in framing any legislation.

    As you say, the liberal Republicans are gone, the moderates are down to three -- Snowe, Collins and Brown -- and now the crazies are out to purge the few remaining sane conservatives as well. The new McCain is reduced to railing against everything the old McCain stood for. On the bright side, they've handed the Dems super-electable Charlie Crist on a platter.

    I cringe when I look ahead to where the U.S. is going. The crazy may be froth tossed up by the current economic storm, but it's pretty clear it's floating on a deep sea of stupid. Crazy you can argue successfully against, but stupid is impossible to counter. I feel your pain, up here in my bunker.

    I agree that there is a deep sea of something that extends far beyond today's economic recession, but I don't think that it's  made of stupid. Stupid is a constant. Every society has stupid. Social movements are driven by more fluid forces--fear, desire, joy, and hate.

    I also believe that the paranoia is much more responsive to external pressure than you suggest, and it can collapse like a punctured balloon under the right conditions--as happened during the Red Scare and other previous bouts of political hysteria. But someone has to apply the pressure, and there's the rub.

    Just to counter the often touted lament about America careening ever rightward, I'd like to posit a few counter-examples: a continuing increase in the number and acceptance of interracial couples, a slow but steady increase in accepting homosexuals as human beings, a very slow, not as steady, but mostly consistent increase in accepting climate change as real and man-made.

    Things are not all bleak.

    A charismatic young president is swept into office by hopeful progressives and independents who'd lost faith in the Bush presidency. Two years later, the public is outraged by, among other things, his health care reform plan, economic stimulus policies, attempt to allow gays to serve in the military and plans for a carbon tax.

    That would be Bill Clinton. The result? A wave of legislative compromises (e.g. welfare reform), generally regarded as moderate and reasonable steps forward. Why? Because the Republicans' newly acquired electoral mandate and parliamentary power required them to do something to prove that voting for them accomplishe anything. They couldn't simply deliver obstruction and expect to get re-elected, particularly with a president who was still surprisingly popular relative to the national mood (say, like, Mr. Obama is today). Obama is just as likely as Clinton to triangulate to the same position (calling Dick Morris!). He will finally have some leverage with which to say no to the Democratic old bulls, which I for one will welcome wholeheartedly.

    A power shift in Congress may not be great for "give me the public option or give me death" brand progressivism, but it just might give Republicans enough skin in the game to get some work done, which is what the independents that will power both of them want anyway.

    The far-right is peripheral to all of this. They won't influence that dealmaking - they'll be freshmen with minimal influence. And long-term if they last long enough to make a real difference, it will be because they gave up on the radical ideology.

    Or they are from South Carolina. Or Oklahoma...

    It won't be the freshmen who will the deals. It will be the folks who have already been happily killing deals for the past 2 years--Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the Club for Growth, etc. GOP incumbents aren't just losing because they're incumbents. They're losing because the right wing has branded them traitors. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT), for example, has received top conservative ratings from the NRA, Right to Life, the American Conservative Union, and other conservative groups. But he voted for TARP in 2008, and he floated a health care compromise in 2009. As a result, the Club for Growth funded a campaign against him, and the Tea Party folks started callhing him "Bailout Bob." And that was the end of Sen. Bennett's career. The GOP has become so subordinate to private sector ideologues that its members can no longer affort to compromise.

    But whether the government gets more or less done in the next two years wasn't my point. We are in this situation where the minority party refuses to work with the majority precisely because of the rise of extremists. The more power they have, the more poorly the U.S. government will function. Even if Boehner manages to press the party into a compromising position for two years, it can easily go bad again in 2012 or 2014 or 2020.

    I think I was arguing that you missed the point, so I guess I agree that you weren't talking about how much government gets done. We part ways with respect to what we believe will happen after the likely Republican mid-term victory. It sounds to me like you believe that would be the start of a sort of GOP rightward death spiral. I was simply arguing that, when we were in an extraordinarily similar situation in 1994, this was not the result - instead, having been invested with the power to do more than simply obstruct the Democratic agenda, the GOP was forced to cooperate with Clinton to demonstrate that once elected, they could govern. Hence, how much government will get done is exactly the point.

    In this environment, the power of extremists is dampened, because their agenda is no longer congruent with the path to re-election. So it's more likely that extremism will wither (e.g., Bob Dole pleading "where's the outrage?!" just two years after the Gingrich revoultion) rather than flourish. You might even argue that extremism is on the rise today simply because fomenting it is a wise strategy for a party that is completely relegated to the minority in terms of support from the general population.

    As for Bob Bennett - pointing out how an extremely conservative senator will be replaced by a slightly more extreme conservative senator doesn't strike me as particularly compelling evidence that the end is near. It's Utah, man.

    I think I was arguing that you missed the point

    Alternatively, I could be arguing a different point. :)

    I'm taking the long view. This election is not the start of an downward spiral to right-wing extremism. The spiral started in the 1970s. We're already at least halfway down.

    In the short term, you're right that a Republican victory may pressure the GOP to moderate somewhat, but there is a counterforce pushing the GOP to the right that began blowing long before than this election cycle and will keep blowing long after. That's why we've consistently seen Republican leaders turn right when the conventional political wisdom says to go left.

    Your Dole example is telling. His lackluster presidential campaign was the moderate Republicans' last gasp. There was a pitched battle at the GOP convention between moderates and conservatives, but despite the fact that the moderate Dole was the putative head of the party, the conservatives carried the day in nearly every battle. "I do have a lot of friends who are leaving the party or who have left," said Monta Huber, a state secretary for the moderate California Republican League. "It's a little scary and very sad. But I am an optimist. I think eventually people will start to understand more. It will become more and more evident what is going on. Eventually the good always wins out. They may win the battle, but we will win the war."

    But they lost the war. Trent Lott replaced Dole in 1997, and GOP never looked back. The moderates are now all but extinct. They lost control of the party in primaries and elections just like the ones we're having this year. Bob Bennett is not significant in and of himself. His loss is simply a symbol of how far the Republican party--in Utah especially--has gone to the extreme.

    Thus, whether Boehner and other Republican leaders moderate somewhat next year is irrelevent in the long run. Back in the 1970s, Boehner would have been considered a far-right radical without a shot of leading the party. In the future, he could be considered too liberal to lead the GOP. That's what I'm concerned about.

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