Why Conservatives Chose Nuttiness

Following the comprehensive failures of President George W. Bush, conservatives faced a hard choice: rethink or go crazy. For too many, the election of Barack Obama appears to have made it, so to speak, a no-brainer. Millions have chosen the comforts of delusion, envisioning the ordinary give and take of politics in a democracy as an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil.

In a presidential election year, the evidence is everywhere. Two weeks ago, Florida GOP Rep. Allen West told a gathering of constituents that he knew of “78 to 81” congressional Democrats who are members of the Communist Party. Almost needless to say, Allen—who is black, incidentally—failed to name even one. Hardly anybody noticed, and certainly not the “severely conservative” presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

Crackpot pronouncements from GOP stalwarts have grown almost too commonplace to remark upon. Just the other day, Romney pretended not to hear a woman in Ohio accuse President Obama of governing outside the constitution. She wanted him tried for treason. Handed an opportunity to appear “presidential,” Romney reacted with the manic unease of a used car salesman fearful of losing a customer.

Meanwhile, speaking of conspiracy theories, a right-wing “think tank” called The Heartland Institute erected a billboard along the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago featuring a portrait of The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

“I still believe in Global Warming,” it read. “Do you?”

Elsewhere, Heartland’s deep thinkers generously conceded that “not all global warming alarmists are murderers or tyrants.”

Big of them, don’t you think?

Of course, Hitler loved dogs. So I don’t know what that means about dog lovers like me. Could I be a Nazi?

What I do know, however, is that virtually every major scientific organization in the world—ranging from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, to the British Royal Society and the Science Council of Japan—agrees that the atmosphere is warming far in excess of natural variability, and that greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels are the cause.

Also that The Heartland Institute, funded by oil and coal interests, must have thought millions of American voters are gullible enough to be swayed by such nakedly demagogic appeals. (Widespread derision ultimately caused them to take the billboard down.)

Nevertheless, the political question of the year remains: were they right? Are Americans that scared and confused?

Writing in the Washington Post, longtime congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein cautiously analyze what’s been obvious to some of us for a long time: the main cause of the dysfunction in American politics has become the ideological extremism of the Republican Party.

The title of their new book summarizes the argument: “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” Briefly, it’s that uncompromising, ideologically-based parties work better in a winner-take-all parliamentary system like Britain’s than under the U.S. Constitution, with its separation of powers. Absent any possibility of consensus, governance has become well-nigh impossible.

Although Mann and Ornstein flirt with the idea that both parties are equally responsible for Washington gridlock, they ultimately conclude that the GOP has become “an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition…all but declaring war on the government.”

No kidding. Sometimes it seems that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 enabled paranoid thinkers to concentrate all their energies on the internal enemy. Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and the bombastic stylings of Rush Limbaugh began depicting Democrats as “sick,” “treasonous,” and enemies of “normal Americans” under Bill Clinton.

But it took the economic catastrophe caused by George W. Bush’s policies followed by the election of President Obama—not merely a black man, it’s important to note, but a black Democrat with a foreign-sounding name—to bring that paranoia to epidemic proportions.

In consequence, longtime GOP congressional aide Mike Lofgren wrote last year in explaining his resignation, “the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe.”

In practical terms, for Obama to succeed where Bush had manifestly failed also had the potential to reduce the GOP to a powerless bloc of neo-Confederate whiners for a generation. So Obama had to fail at all costs.

Sometimes it’s appeared as if the president himself was the only man in Washington who didn’t grasp the irrational zeal of his GOP rivals. “Has his vision of himself as a transformative figure, his sheer narcissism,” I wrote two years ago “made him confuse the rough-and-tumble of Washington with the genteel precincts of the Harvard Law Review?”

Alas, crazy can’t be reasoned with, only defeated.


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Jack Smith
Jack Smith

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