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One reason that right-wing commentators continue to spout paranoid hysteria is that no one has told them to shut up. OK, Keith Olbermann and a bunch of left-wing bloggers have told them to shut up, and the White House has indirectly implied that they should please keep it down. But the people who really have the power to undermine the conspiracists--the non-paranoid conservative leaders, or what's left of them--have not said a damn word about the wild accusations hurled by Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or Michele Bachmann. Some may be afraid, particularly after Limbaugh schooled RNC Chair Michael Steele when Steele called him an "entertainer." But others have cynically calculated that the paranoia works for the party, so they just let it ride.
Take Bill Kristol. Kristol is a very conservative man, but he is not a stupid man. Unlike Beck and Limbaugh, who never graduated from college, Kristol received a B.A. (magna cum laude) and Ph.D. from Harvard. Instead of beginning his career as a radio D.J., he taught political science at U. Penn and Harvard's Kennedy School. He has never expressed the kind of paranoia that has become the standard fare of FOX News commentary. But he has no intention of trying to stop it. Kristol believes that the Republican Party's center of gravity lies "with individuals such as Palin and Huckabee and Gingrich, media personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and activists at town halls and tea parties," and he praises their effectiveness:
Some will lament this -- but over the past year, as those voices have dominated, conservatism has done pretty well in the body politic, and Republicans have narrowed the gap with Democrats in test ballots...The lesson activists around the country will take from this is that a vigorous, even if somewhat irritated, conservative/populist message seems to be more effective in revitalizing the Republican Party than an attempt to accommodate the wishes of liberal media elites. So the GOP is likely, for the foreseeable future, to be of a conservative mind and in a populist mood. In American politics, there are worse things to be.
In American politics, there are worse things to be. Kristol doesn't tell us what those worse things are, but red-baiting witch-hunters from the 1950's are fairly high on many peoples' lists--the politicians whose paranoid fearmongering tore the country apart until someone finally stood up and said, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" Conservative leaders of the day surely felt that the "populist mood" benefited their election chances. Eisenhower toured Wisconsin with McCarthy, and it probably helped him to win the Presidency.
But Eisenhower hated McCarthy and actively worked to undermine him after winning the election. We might also recall a more recent president, George H.W. Bush, who resigned his lifelong NRA membership after an NRA advertisement referred to "jack-booted government thugs," a fascist reference that seems almost quaint by today's standards.
Yet today, we hear nothing but silence from the right side of the aisle, or worse, complicity from politicians who seek to profit directly from the hysteria. As long as conservatives provide a haven for conspiracy theories, the paranoia will continue to boil and heave and devour the party that protects it.
Stay tuned for more crazy talk in my Persecution Politics series at dagblog.com.