Monday, December 05, 2005
by Matt Stoller
Mon Dec 05, 2005 at 12:35:56 PM PDTI had an immensely irritating discussion with a political researcher this weekend, in which she claimed that the vast majority of the country didn't like extremists on the left or the right. She looked at me, her eyes glistening with passionate empathy, and said that we need to stop demonizing Republicans because the left and the right fringes are equal.
I got mad. I got mad because she is only saying what her research shows her, which is that people like to consider themselves in the middle. But if you actually look at the fringes, it's clear that the extremes on the right and the left are very different, in both how influential they are and how dangerous they are. The Republican Party mainstreams its extremists; we do not.
Sure, left-wing extremists are annoying, misguided, stupid, and anti-democratic. They make clothes out of hemp and sell issues of badly edited communist magazines in academic areas, and they are explictly on the fringes of our political system. For some odd reason, they seem to be the only ones on the left who know how to apply for permits to march in DC. Right-wing extremists have something in common with the left fringes - they are also annoying, misguided, stupid, and anti-democratic. The difference is that the right-wing fringes are dangerous and prone to violence, and they are within the mainstream of the Republican Party.
The Minutemen are a good example - a good example of white supremacists fueled by paranoia to take their beliefs into their own hands and use violence outside of the law to attack those who are not like them. Read David Neiwert at Orcinus for more on the Minutemen. My point in this post is to show that these groups are embraced fully by the mainstream Republican Party as legitimate, and that this needs to be understood and taken into account when formulating the Democratic narrative.
For instance, California Yankee at Red State is now saying that the Democratic Party isn't serious about national security because DNC members condemned this racist vigilante group. He's doing this on the front-page of the mainstream Republican site where Republican Congressmen post, presumably because he's a well-respected member of it. Tacitus, a founder of Redstate before he left the site, used to lament the fact that neo-Nazi groups would link approvingly to RedState posts. Tacitus would disavow them explicitly. One doesn't have to look far to see why far right hate groups see an alliance with the Republican Party. The anti-immigration fight gives a nice window into who these people are. In many cases, the far right and the Republican Party are activists are one and the same:
How did we get to this point in time? I first heard about Jim Gilchrist and the Minutemen last year when they started receiving huge media attention for their audacity to actually go down to the porous border and become the largest glorified neighbor watch group in America. I was literally cheering the television when I saw clips and interviews of Jim Gilchrist and Chris Simcox telling the media that they were doing the job that the federal government has refused to do. I had no idea that later next year(this year) that a seat in the House would open up in the district where Jim actually lives. We literally drafted Jim into the race. He was a reluctant warrior, but I am so glad that he decided to do it.
This supporter calls himself a diehard loyal Republican. He says he started a blog because his Irvine California neighbor Hugh Hewitt encouraged him to. Hewitt is one of the top five right-wing blogs in terms of ad revenue, and a clear mainstream Republican pundit.
The picture above was a flag flown at a protest organized by Jim Gilchrist. I'm sure Gilchrist didn't endorse that specific type of participation, but Neiwart makes clear that there is a great deal of overlap between the white supremacists and the mainstream right-wing base. This thread at Stormfront, a neo-Nazi web site, makes that clear, as Neiwart explains:
The Stormfront forum is especially enlightening, since it is a specifically neo-Nazi chatroom. Especially noteworthy were the many posts questioning the use of the Nazi symbology at the rally, since it would "turn off" many whites. It's worth remembering that most dedicated racists take care not to let it show publicly -- unlike these fellows. But the whole thread makes clear to what extent these extremists now move among allegedly "mainstream" right-wing operations and not infiltrate them, but fully hijack them.
I got mad at the researcher I talked to because it was very clear she hasn't studied what bubbles beneath the surface of our politics. The Democratic Party and the liberal base of it is basically a pro-capitalist group who believes in a safety net and collective action to preserve the rule of law and some measure of equality of opportunity. There are extremists, but they are outside the party and most importantly, not on the whole particularly dangerous. The Republican Party base is full of people who believe that vigilante groups like the Minutemen are patriotic, and those that oppose them are enemies of the state. The Republican Party base does things like endorse rape as a legitimate function of property rights, which leads directly to the demonization of women. They embrace their crazies, and defend those who threaten minorities with violence. They even call us unserious on national security because we condemn those who use violence to enforce a racist agenda.
Extremism is an inherent characteristic of human societies, but it is the mark of civilization how one manages that extremism. The left-wing is basically a mainstream movement, and seeks to expel extremists from our coalition. The right-wing is not. Republican Party activists either endorse white supremacy through the use of coded attacks on illegal immigrants, or they legitimize such attacks by disagreeing with the groups but keeping them in the coalition.
I was angry at that researcher for the same reason I bristle at most mainstream political strategists. She is paid to detect the broadest spectrum of feelings, hence the immediate recoil at 'both extremes', but not to actually understand the extremism at the core of the Republican Party. The advice that comes from such research is bad if you are a progressive. Pretend that the leaders of both parties are moderates. Seek extremism in your own party, and disavow it. Don't talk about 'icky' things, like rape, or race, or civilian casualties in Iraq. Don't reverse insane policies like the war on drugs that remove freedom from a substantial part of the populace. That will simply turn off the middle, because they want to believe that what we have now is mainstream, and changes demanded by either side's base are just extreme.
I have a different way of looking at it, aside from chopping the public up into a mainstream that doesn't like icky things, and two politically equivalent extremes. We need to ask all Americans to reach higher, to say that the loss of, say, New Orleans is the manifestation of Republican extremism, and our tolerance of it. We need to draw a direct line between the Minutemen/Free Republic axis of the Republican Party, and Iraq, New Orleans, Scooter, etc. We need to show, explicitly, that the awful events in the past, and the ones to come, are the result of Republican Party's core extremism, and our tolerance of it. Most Americans think they are doing reasonably well, though there is deep anxiety over the clear storm clouds on the horizon. Crafting an overall narrative of extremism on the right, drawing directly from their racist and vicious mainstream activists, as well as the story of our tolerance of this lunacy, is key to explaining the storm clouds.
We need to show the extremism, the tolerance of it, and offer a counter-narrative. We aren't better than the Republicans because our policies make more sense, we are better than the Republicans because America is better than vicious extremism, because Americans are better than our worst instincts. We are setting things right in our own party, in our lives, and we will do so in America. Join us.
The failure to put things right is the difference between the two parties. The right-wing created the disaster in New Orleans, but America and the Democrats allowed it to happen. We have to understand the depths of the disaster, and the depths of our own complicity in it. We have to reject the false idols of television and cynicism, and say to ourselves that this is a fight not between good and evil, but between what is easy and what is right. Tolerance of the easy is why New Orleans happened, and why we're in Iraq. It's easier to allow troops to bear the brunt of our own failure to live up to our ideals, than to look at what we've allowed to happen.
This can and will stop, and we will stop it. While we have tolerated extremism until now, and that is our fault, we will no longer do so. We will seek our better instincts, and look squarely at the viciousness of our current government and say 'I am an American, this is my society, I will set this right.' And setting this right means that we must expel the Republican activist base from American public life. We must ask Americans to join us in the task of rebuilding our country, and in acknowledging what has been destroyed cannot be rebuilt but by determination, dedication, and ruthlessness against those who seek to deal in the right-wing narcotic of irresponsible and unAmerican demagoguery.