There has been a lot of talk lately from some Republicans about the manner in which the crazies have taken over the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Most recently I’ve noted this in citing David Frum. Glenn Greenwald and The Daily Howler make similar arguments that the current craziness is not anything new but has been characteristic of the conservative movement for a long time.
Greenwald argues that “here is nothing new about the character of the American Right or their concerted efforts to destroy the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency.” He begins by citing events during the Clinton years and then writes:
This is why I have very mixed feelings about the protests of conservatives such as David Frum or Andrew Sullivan that the conservative movement has been supposedly “hijacked” by extremists and crazies. On the one hand, this is true. But when was it different? Rush Limbaugh didn’t just magically appear in the last twelve months. He — along with people like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Bill Kristol and Jesse Helms — have been leaders of that party for decades. Republicans spent the 1990s wallowing in Ken Starr’s sex report, “Angry White Male” militias, black U.N. helicopters, Vince Foster’s murder, Clinton’s Mena drug runway, Monica’s semen-stained dress, Hillary’s lesbianism, “wag the dog” theories, and all sorts of efforts to personally humiliate Clinton and destroy the legitimacy of his presidency using the most paranoid, reality-detached, and scurrilous attacks. And the crazed conspiracy-mongers in that movement became even more prominent during the Bush years. Frum himself — now parading around as the Serious Adult conservative — wrote, along with uber-extremist Richard Perle, one of the most deranged and reality-detached books of the last two decades, and before that, celebrated George W. Bush, his former boss, as “The Right Man.”
It’s also why I am extremely unpersuaded by the prevailing media narrative that the Right is suddenly enthralled to its rambunctions and extremist elements and is treating Obama in some sort of unique or unprecedented way. Other than the fact that Obama’s race intensifies the hatred in some precincts, nothing that the Right is doing now is new. This is who they are and what they do — and that’s been true for many years, for decades. Even the allegedly “unprecedented” behavior at Obama’s speech isn’t really unprecedented; although nobody yelled ”you lie,” Republicans routinely booed and heckled Clinton when he spoke to Congress because they didn’t think he was legitimately the President (only for Ted Koppel to claim that it was something “no one at this table has ever heard before” when Democrats, in 2005, booed Bush’s Social Security privatization proposal during a speech to Congress).
If this argument is whether the conservative movement suddenly became crazy in the last several months then there is no doubt that Greenwald is right. The conservative movement turned into its present form during the Clinton and Bush administrations and their current craziness is a continuation of those trends.
I find the more interesting question to be whether the conservative movement and Republican Party have been crazier since the Clinton years as opposed the the preceding decades. The answer is not a simple yes or no. There is a long history of right wing extremism. A major difference is that in the past this was often separated from the right wing establishment. The problem today is that the extremists who would have been in the John Birch Society and the KKK are now the ones dominating the Republican Party and conservative movement.
There have been moments when the extremists dominated the Republican Party in the past, such as the McCarthy era. Even then the Republican President was the moderate Dwight Eisenhower. A major difference between the Republican Party of the past and the party of today is that there was a strong moderate wing and even a liberal wing. In recent years most of the liberals and moderates have been driven out, pushing the Republican Party further to the right. In addition, the dominance of the religious right has greatly changed the character of the GOP and the conservative movement. For years the Republicans would give rhetorical support to the religious right to get their votes but once in office they would ignore what even the mainstream Republicans realized were the nut groups of the right.
As the religious right increased their influence of the conservative movement, more rational voices were often driven away. Even Barry Goldwater considered himself a liberal in his later years in opposition to the growing influence of the religious right. With the Republican Party increasingly dominated by the wing nuts by the Clinton years, the election of George Bush in 2000 was the final straw in turning the GOP into a reactionary, theological party. Neither Barry Goldwater or even Ronald Reagan would recognize the modern Republican Party.
The conservative movement had essentially taken on its present form by the time of Obama’s election, but the election of Obama has exacerbated such tendencies. Both racism and xenophobia have always been common, although by no means universal, tendencies in the conservative movement. The election of a president who not only is black but is also claimed to be a foreigner by the far right has greater excited the conservative base. Economic worries also exacerbate extremism.
To a certain degree the craziness of the right is amplified by changes in the media. The right wing media has always been a tremendous source of misinformation. I read National Review and Human Events in the late 1960′s and 1970′s and found them to be spreading misinformation which is comparable to that spread by Fox. The difference is that while these publications were primarily read by conservative true believers, the right wing noise machine now spreads their misinformation to the general public. Fox, which was not even around in the 1970′s, is now even larger than it was during the Clinton years. Elimination of the Fairness Doctrine under Reagan also enabled the development of conservative talk radio.
Conservatives have greatly outweighed liberals when new people were brought into CNN since it was sold by Ted Turner, and conservative influence has also increased over many other portions of the media. While the far right denounces the conservative-leaning mainstream media because it does not promote their entire fantasy world, the mainstream media still acts to reinforce the messages from the far right. The mainstream media helps the far right when it provides their misinformation with equal coverage along with truthful information from other sources due to a false idea of fairness. Sometimes, in reporting what is being said by the far right, the media should also note that those saying this are crazy–or at least clearly provide the facts.
Besides changes in the mass media, the internet provides echo chambers which make insane ideas and misinformation appear to be true. Some believe that if they can pull something up on the internet to defend their views it must be true, even if the facts cited are actually fiction. The echo chambers of the right also increase ideological purity and extremism on the right. This is also true among some portions of the left, but they are on the outside of the Democratic Party as opposed to the extremists who now dominate the GOP. The internet, along with having extremist kooks like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck in positions where they can speak to large audiences, makes it easier for the far right to mobilize and create news as they did yesterday.
Update: Barack Obama touches on this topic in his interview on Sixty Minutes which is to air tonight:
President Barack Obama said in an interview to be aired Sunday night on “60 Minutes” that he sees “a coarsening of our political dialogue.”
“The truth of the matter is that there has been, I think, a coarsening of our political dialogue,” Obama told Steve Kroft in an interview taped at the White House on Friday evening.
“I will also say that in the era of 24-hour cable news cycles, that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention. And so one of the things that I’m trying to figure out is: How can we make sure that civility is interesting?”