Paul Waldman asked a great question over at The Plum Line today, How Much Does Right-Wing Rhetoric Contribute to Right-Wing Terrorism? He’s very careful not to ruffle any feathers by claiming that people like Michele Bachmann are actually culpable, “But what I am saying is this: there are some particular features of conservative political rhetoric today that help create an atmosphere in which violence and terrorism can germinate.” He goes on to talk about the “fetishization of firearms” and the idea that Obama is turning the United States into a totalitarian dystopia.
I don’t think the firearms are the problem—I think they are a symptom. He’s closer to what’s going on in the second of his reasons. There is a very big problem on the right that when the Democrats are in control, those on the right act like a revolution has taken place. When Bush the Younger was elected, liberals were very unhappy. But the reaction of liberals was not, “This is the end of America as we know it!” It was more along the lines of, “Well, this is going to make things worse.”
I want to be clear on this distinction. I like political extremists because I like people who care about politics, even if they are total idiots. Libertarians and socialists alike have a whole bunch of stuff that they don’t like about the current state of governance in this country. Neither of them are particularly well served by either party. But people on the left don’t flip out and say that just because a Republican is in the White House it is the end of the 40-hour work week. But people on the right do flip out and say that just because a Democrat is in the White House the black helicopters are coming to kill your children.
Waldman provided an excellent example of this. Senator Ron Johnson, about as mainstream a guy as the Republicans have, said of Obamacare, “So we’re going to the Supreme Court, begging them please, please allow us this one last shred of freedom.” Of course, I think Waldman was being way too charitable when he said that Johnson was speaking metaphorically. I don’t think Johnson or any of the people who talk this way really know what they think. They just have this automatic reaction that any liberal policy is the end of freedom. Their precursors said the same things about Social Security and Medicare and unemployment insurance and the minimum wage and the 40-hour work week and just about any other policy you can think of that is now uncontroversial.
Years ago, I was confused when conservatives would talk about the “liberal media.” This was long before Fox News. Eventually I realized that to them, “liberal” simply meant “not conservative.” So it is very basic to the way conservatives see the world that when a Democrat is in the White House it must mean that there has been a Soviet style takeover of the country. Now, they would claim that when a Republican is in the White House, the country is at best just treading water. But that’s just apologia. The truth is that the far right calm down completely when the Republicans are in charge. Waldman explained:
In the Clinton years, it looked like there might well be active revolt by the militia movement. But then Bush was elected and: poof!
Democracy is about a lot more than voting. It would not be a democracy if every time a different party got control the the government everything changed. There is no government for four years and then the government owns everything for the next four years. Democracy depends upon a certain level of consistency. And the conservative elites understand this, because they have been hugely successful at slowly moving this country to the right such that when the liberal party proposes healthcare reform, it does it in the most conservative, market-based way possible. But the conservative base does not understand this.
Again, we must come back to the pernicious effects of the DLC and the Democrats’ move to the right on economic policy. This has given those on the right the idea that socialism is capitalism with a tiny amount of government regulation. This is the great threat that our democracy faces, because both sides need to see the full extent of possible political debate. But on economic issues the Democrats now occupy the position that just four decades ago was considered center right. So the conservative base thinks that “far left” is defined as whatever the Democrats think. Thus something like Obamacare that is a tiny step to the left is socialism.
So the right is very confused. But they have good reasons for being confused. And the only way out of this mess is for the Democratic Party to play its proper part in our two party system and move to the left. Sadly, this can’t be done too quickly. It took as 30 years to get into this mess, it will take another 30 to get us out of it. As it is, I wouldn’t rule out armed rebellion by right wing groups who think that the end is nigh. But the critical issue that that Democrats have to learn what Republicans have long know: it isn’t about winning elections; it’s about controlling the debate. We need to greatly expand the debate. The world is out of control when Bill O’Reilly receives no ridicule for saying Dana Milbank is from the “far left.” That’s a world in which you’ve got Charles Krauthammer on the left, Milbank on the far left and Paul Krugman in hell as the Prince of Darkness. And that’s just crazy, especially when you consider that Paul Krugman isn’t all that liberal.