Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Hysterical Fringe

The New York Review of Books seems to have decided to dip its toes in the blogosphere, providing several of its regular contributing authors with the means to set up blogs, presumably as spaces for offering comment and fostering discussion. Had it not been for my RSS feed, I might not have known about this new feature; but I got my first taste of it this morning. These seem to be rather extended pieces, rather than the usual thing one would expect from blog posts; but the authors are all accustomed to taking the time to play out the reasoning behind their ideas, rather than just showing off the ideas. The only problem is that one could end up spending as much time reading these posts as with the printed articles, so I am going to have to set myself some ground rules of selectivity.

The first of these was to concentrate on a contribution by Gary Wills in the first batch of releases. I made this decision on the basis of both my confidence in Wills' reputation and the specific choice of headline, "The New American Hysteria." Like Michael Tomasky (and perhaps in response to the latter's recent article), Wills has been struck by the involvement of the Conservatives in protest movements and the extent to which their expression of protest has been one of hysteria, if not raw hatred. Being a level-headed sort, Wills addressed the question of the impact on the Republican party of those who see extremism in support of protest as no vice (with more than due respect to the source of the original version). The problem is that the Republican Party is shrinking in numbers. Wills concludes his piece with some thoughts of what to do about this problem:

This situation cannot be reversed until and unless the Republican Party begins to recognize that keeping these people in the camp will destroy the camp, that the party cannot pretend to respect and responsibility before the electorate so long as they coddle the crazies. Barry Goldwater was considered an extremist in his day, but his movement went on to prevail for a time because he did not temporize with Birchers, anti-Semites, or religious fanatics.

William F. Buckley became an influential supporter of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan because he was willing to free his movement from fringes like the John Birch Society, the anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby, the Ayn Rand objectivists, the anti-fluoride kooks, and other exotic specimens. That is the price of full participation in our national politics. It is a price the current Republican Party is unwilling to pay.

This is all very well and good for rational argument, but Wills overlooks the extent to which recent Republican successes in gaining power have resulted from coddling those crazies. Newt Gingrich was the one who started the ball rolling when he decided to take a contract out on America, but Karl Rove demonstrated that power was a matter of juggling all of those crazies without letting one of them encounter the solid ground of substantive actions and deliverables. This is less a matter of dealing with objective truths and more one of exploiting subjective and social realities. Those who espouse the rational should realize that there are still those in the Republican Party determined to recover power "by any means necessary;" and they are as committed to the spirit of that quote as was the man who initially uttered it!

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