The GOP's Wingnuts

From Paul Waldman on TomPaine.com:
Had you happened by the Conservative Political Action Conference taking place at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington this past weekend, you would have been able to hobnob with representatives of the entire spectrum of conservative American thought, from the right to the far right to the really far right. And you would have seen the leading lights of the Republican establishment rubbing shoulders with the most radical reactionaries in America. There was the vice president of the United States—and Ann Coulter, who regularly calls for the murder of those with whom she disagrees. There was Karl Rove—and Gary Aldrich, the former FBI agent and author who claimed Hillary Clinton hung crack pipes from the White House Christmas tree. There was Republican Party chair Ken Mehlman—and right-wing dirty trickster David Bossie. There were nine U.S. senators—and the authors of a passel of anti-Clinton hit books. And those were just the official speakers.
Yet you won't hear anyone asking prominent Republicans to "distance themselves" from the wingnuts in their midst. Reporters and pundits won't be fishing out controversial statements from CPAC conference speakers and asking elected Republicans to repudiate them. Conservative writers won't be penning magazine pieces advising the RNC to hold the center by purging activists whose views are "outside the mainstream."
But the story is far different on the left, where the circular firing squad is a regularly scheduled event. This is not to say that conservatives don't sometimes go after their own, but the critical difference is this: The right purges its moderates, while the left purges its liberals.
Part of this can be explained by the fact that at the moment, Republicans are in power and Democrats are retooling. And every now and again, a lone voice like that of Christine Todd Whitman will bleat from the wilderness that the GOP shouldn't get too in thrall to its radical religious wing. But Whitman's argument and her book were completely ignored by conservatives. It's My Party,Too now stands at a tepid #859 in the Amazon rankings.
Contrast that with the reception given to a recent article in The New Republic by editor Peter Beinart, in which he instructed Democrats that they needed "a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace"—most particularly Michael Moore and the leadership of Moveon.org. Beinart's piece became the topic of extended debate and discussion on the left, after which he was given a mid-six figure advance by Harper Collins to turn the article into a book.
It would seem that membership in the left—who gets to be a part, whose part is important, and who needs to have their membership card revoked—is a matter of debate in the way it isn't for the right. Of course, the right has its internecine battles too, but not only do they take place mostly out of the public eye, they're about whose issues will dominate the agenda—not who gets to come to the party.
Liberals face two key problems: first, they have allowed the right to define them, and second, they have put virtually no effort into defining the right.
Turn on conservative talk radio or conservative cable news and you hear an endless dissertation on the evils of the left, much of which is focused on the idea that liberals are the "elite." Limbaugh, Hannity and their compatriots scour the countryside looking for a college professor or Hollywood actor who said something stupid or unpatriotic, so this heretofore obscure nobody can then be held up for ridicule and contempt. Consider the story of Ward Churchill, an academic of little discernible accomplishment or influence, whose potential speech (on what topic no one seems to know or care) at a small college in upstate New York has led to a deluge of feigned outrage. The Lexis/Nexis database contains more than 800 references to Churchill in American news outlets since this story began on Jan. 28—and that doesn't even include talk radio. In the last month, every single episode of The O'Reilly Factor save one has featured some discussion of Churchill (no telling why Bill dropped the ball on Feb. 10).
The message of this relentless campaign couldn't be clearer: liberals are radical elitists who hate your values, think you're stupid and want to run your life. And the response from at least some liberals is, "Oh yes, please forgive us. We'll get started on that purge right away."
Of course, there's a difference between Ward Churchill and Michael Moore—some people actually listen to Moore. But there's also a difference between disagreeing with someone and starting your own campaign against them. Imagine if liberals spent as much time working to publicize the radicals on the right as they do wondering which mouth on their own side they'd like to stuff a sock in.
There's no better time than the present for Democrats to think seriously about who they are and how they'd like Americans to think about them. But if they go about recasting their image without also working to shape the image of conservatism at the same time, they'll only be fighting half the battle. The fact that Republicans don't worry about how radical their fringe is means that there's plenty of ammunition just sitting there. Show Americans the orgy of hate-mongering and creeping fascism that is today's radical right and they'll recoil in disgust. Force Republicans to embrace or repudiate their radical supporters and they'll be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Then we'll be getting somewhere.


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