Paul Krugman brings up Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in his column today, noting that much of what Hofstadter wrote about the far Right in 1964 sounds just like the far Right of 2009. The biggest difference, Krugman says, is that in 1964 both parties rejected the wingnuts. It was Ronald Reagan who began to cater to them and gave them a foot in the door, and Republican politicians began to win elections by stirring up the wingnuts. I have some quibbles with that analysis, but let’s skip that for now.
Until recently, however, that catering mostly took the form of empty symbolism. Once elections were won, the issues that fired up the base almost always took a back seat to the economic concerns of the elite. Thus in 2004 George W. Bush ran on antiterrorism and “values,” only to announce, as soon as the election was behind him, that his first priority was changing Social Security.
Pretty much what Thomas Franks wrote in What’s the Matter With Kansas?
But something snapped last year. Conservatives had long believed that history was on their side, so the G.O.P. establishment could, in effect, urge hard-right activists to wait just a little longer: once the party consolidated its hold on power, they’d get what they wanted. After the Democratic sweep, however, extremists could no longer be fobbed off with promises of future glory.
In Wingnut Lore, “Republican elites” have joined the ranks of the “Liberal Elite” as betrayers of American values.
Furthermore, the loss of both Congress and the White House left a power vacuum in a party accustomed to top-down management. At this point Newt Gingrich is what passes for a sober, reasonable elder statesman of the G.O.P. And he has no authority: Republican voters ignored his call to support a relatively moderate, electable candidate in New York’s special Congressional election.
Newt’s political career is long over; only he and Big Media don’t seem to know that. He still has some uses as a shill for corporate interests, which makes corporate media take him seriously. But he has no actual following among the plebes that I can see.
But I want to go back to the history of the Republican Party and its relationship to right-wing whackjobs. It’s not entirely accurate to say that the GOP rejected wingnuts until Reagan. Much of the Red-baiting of the 1950s and 1960s amounted to a shout-out to wingnuts. During the height of Joe McCarthy’s Reign of Terror, for example, ca. 1952, many GOP leaders publicly supported and encouraged him. However, it was also a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who helped orchestrate his demise.
A great deal of today’s political landscape also was determined by the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Every facet of conservatism was opposed to civil rights for racial minorities in those days, and part of the pushback came in the form of connecting civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King to the Communist Conspiracy. Some libertarians today still try to make that connection.
Barry Goldwater flirted with the whackjobs in his failed presidential bid in 1964. Richard Nixon, a master Red-Baiter in his prime, also played a role. To counteract news stories that made Tricky Dick look bad, the Nixon Administration created the myth of the liberal media that gave wingnuts permission to ignore any news they don’t like as “media bias.” This in turn paved the way for manufactured news from the Wingnut Alternative Reality to be given the same weight and respect as accounts of stuff that actually happened.
So what we saw from the end of World War II to today was a process by which the extreme Right created its own mythical narrative (beginning with “stabbed n the back” at Yalta). At the same time, the authority of news media — an Edward R. Murrow; a Walter Cronkite — to set the record straight was undermined. And a big chunk of the American public became putty in the hands of unscrupulous demagogues.
Real power in the party rests, instead, with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (who at this point is more a media figure than a conventional politician). Because these people aren’t interested in actually governing, they feed the base’s frenzy instead of trying to curb or channel it. So all the old restraints are gone.
This is essentially true, although we could argue how much anyone in the Bush II administration cared about governing, as opposed to looking out for the interests of the financial and defense industry sectors.
Krugman’s concern is that the poor economy and high unemployment could help Republicans take back many seats in Congress next year. Republicans can stomp around staying that President Obama’s big-spending stimulus failed. The irony is that it fell short largely because Obama watered it down to please Republicans, but good luck getting that message out past the Wingnut Noise Machine.
And if Tea Party Republicans do win big next year, what has already happened in California could happen at the national level. In California, the G.O.P. has essentially shrunk down to a rump party with no interest in actually governing â€” but that rump remains big enough to prevent anyone else from dealing with the state’s fiscal crisis. If this happens to America as a whole, as it all too easily could, the country could become effectively ungovernable in the midst of an ongoing economic disaster.
The U.S. has been nearly ungovernable for some time, thanks to the Right, but I agree there is some room for matters to get worse.