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Is Joe Wilson a Useful Idiot? Do Democrats Need Their Own Crazies?

In the wake of the display of craziness by Rep. Joe Wilson during the president’s health care speech, and the rather notable reluctance of Republicans to criticize him on substantive (as opposed to protocol) grounds, a perennial question arises: Do these conservative eruptions of extremism actually tilt the national political debate to the Right? 

This has long been a concern of progressives. Just this week Michelle Goldberg fretted:

The marginalization of the left has its costs. Political energy tends to concentrate around extremes, and while the Republican Party has been able to draw on the passion of their right flank, there's a yawning gap between left-wing culture and the Democrats….

Politicians who try to separate themselves from right-wing madness by blaspheming Rush Limbaugh or evangelical leader James Dobson are quickly forced to repent. As a result, the center of the political conversation is pulled steadily rightward. In this sense, legitimatizing more left-wing voices, even those that make liberals uncomfortable, would be a tremendous help to progressivism.

The “energy” argument is a familiar one. But if ideological excess only encourages voters to show up at the polls once, it’s probably irrelevant—except in the closest elections. But the discussion about how extremism “tilts the debate” is newer and more interesting.

There are generally two sets of villains in this revisionist take on “extremism.” The first are “centrist” Democratic politicians and pundits who legitimize the other side, however crazy, by their blind support for “bipartisanship” and “compromise.” And the second are the news media, who either (in the case of the openly partisan media like Fox News) create or echo crazy arguments, or (in the case of the mainstream media) adopt a position of presumptive equivalency, blandly reporting crazy talk as one side of a he-said, she-said story.   Hence, the debate is “pushed to the Right”—the center-right suddenly seems so much more moderate relative to the loudly broadcast extreme positions.

The solution, this sort of analysis invariably suggests, is to counter right-wing “framing” of arguments with left-wing framing, pulling the debate back to something resembling the actual “center.” 

If this approach sounds a bit too cute and cynical, that’s because it assigns roles to various players in politics based on their tactical positioning rather than the validity of what they actually believe. Iif this is a dubious moral proposition, it is also politically risky. Does it really help Barack Obama or the congressional Democratic leadership get anything practical done to perpetually mobilize an army of activists and ideologues who, say, want radical reductions in military spending or a socialist makeover of the economy? Will conservatives stop calling Obama a “socialist” if the genuine article is more visible? I doubt it, but in any event, if I were a Department of Peace enthusiast, I’d soon tire of being asked to shake my fist and howl in order to make regular Democrats look more “centrist” and to “push the debate” towards center-left positions I don’t actually share. 

This is not to deny the problem that Goldberg and many others have highlighted. One quickly despairs each time some semi-educated newsreader stares at the camera and talks about “the debate” over “death panels” or the reality of climate change as though these are fully debatable propositions. 

But perhaps there’s something to be said after all for truth-telling and reasonableness, not in the pursuit of compromises with the crazy people of the Right, but because a majority of people in this country will ultimately recognize and reject craziness, just as they’ve generally done in the past. Progressives shouldn’t have to cultivate their own cadre of “extremists,” or feign extremism in their own “positioning,” in order to show they are actually trying to solve the country’s many problems. Sometimes it’s best to say what you actually think, with emotional empathy and passion to be sure, but with a little more faith in democracy.