It’s hard to recall an essay with which I am more loath to disagree than Sean Wilentz’s May 2 piece for TNR online, which expressed the hope that the killing of Osama bin Laden could spell the end of a “long cycle of outrageous attacks, innuendo, and conspiracy-mongering, the politicized by-product of the war on terror.” Believe me, if this turns out to be true, no one would be happier about it than this confirmed Democratic “centrist.” But alas, the current craziness of our politics, expressed on both sides of the political spectrum—predominantly, however, in a mood of destructive rage on the Right—is attributable to many factors beyond the war on terror or the traumatic events of September 11. Therefore, even if you believe Osama’s destruction signals the imminent end of “the war on terror”—a highly debatable proposition in itself—a host of other incendiary factors show absolutely no sign of going away.
Wilentz attributes the bulk of the current escalation in craziness to the way in which conservative operatives like Karl Rove exploited fears stemming from “the war on terror” for political purposes in the wake of September 11. But much of the passion and paranoia on the Right stems from homegrown issues as old as the failed Goldwater presidential candidacy of 1964: the culture wars against alleged cultural relativism and decay; hostility towards the entire corpus of the New Deal and Great Society, suspicion of “Eastern elites” in both major parties, and nationalist rejection of multilateralism and “limited wars” in foreign policy—all of which sound quite familiar today. Indeed, those who call themselves “movement conservatives” (oldsters remember when “The Movement” carried very different connotations) have continued the same struggle ever since, and now consider themselves on the brink of final victory. They are not about to suddenly devolve into reasonable-sounding, compromise-seeking moderates at this late date. More specifically, a number of strains of paranoia in contemporary conservative politics have little or nothing to do with September 11, but they virtually guarantee the continuation of a savage political climate.
One of the most powerful wellsprings of anti-government extremism is the often-ignored but indefatigable anti-abortion movement. It’s important to remember that this significant faction in today’s Republican Party has millions of adherents who believe, to one extent or another, that America is morally equivalent to Nazi Germany in its tolerance and encouragement of a “Holocaust” that has killed millions of unborn children. These beliefs, in turn, stoke fears that the country’s next plausible step is the implementation of a program of government-backed euthanasia—the probable source of the “death panels” meme about health reform advanced by two of the most prominent anti-choice pols in America, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. One does not behave “civilly” towards mass murderers; one tries to expose their nefarious designs by hook or by crook.
Closely related to this first group is a parallel and overlapping body of politicized culture warriors who emerged when much of the conservative evangelical leadership abandoned its traditional church-state separatist principles on grounds that “a secular humanist” society had made the free practice of Christianity impossible. In this view, those who advocate, say, marriage equality for gays and lesbians are not civil rights advocates, but persecutors of those determined to obey God’s revealed will, or perhaps in an unholy alliance with Muslim proponents of Sharia law.
Another equally potent source of political paranoia comes from a group of righteous “tax rebels” who view the collection of taxes by the federal government as a form of sanctioned thievery. Since the 1970s, American politics has been periodically swept by wave after wave of tax revolts supported by people who do not simply think federal, state or local tax rates are too high, but that they are being subjected to an immoral redistribution of income benefitting unworthy people, most often the poor and minorities. This group’s anger at “looters” has often expressed itself in conspiracy theories about alliances between parasitical elites and the underclass, a staple of “producerist” protests throughout American history and in other countries as well. And more recently, it has manifested itself in panicked characterizations of modest proposals by the Obama administration—from imposing tighter regulations of the insurance and financial markets to returning the personal income tax to the pre-Bush levels of the 1990s—as part of a far-reaching socialist plot on the part of the president with the aim of destroying capitalism.
Finally, when grassroots paranoia proves insufficient, there is now a professional class of hate-mongers ready and willing to fan the flames. While the smear campaigns against war heroes like Max Cleland, the former Democratic senator from Georgia, and presidential nominee John Kerry might have gotten some of their juice from the “war on terror,” the iron conviction that negative campaigning almost always works has been drummed into a generation of political professionals of every persuasion. Moreover, outrageous politics has been proven to make a lot of money for its purveyors, from direct-mail-genius turned strategist Karl Rove to the many superstars like Glenn Beck created by the Murdoch media empire. And the U.S. Supreme Court’s war on campaign finance regulations has only made it easier than ever for wealthy interests to conduct surgical strikes of immense destructiveness on political enemies, with little or no accountability.
Viewed from this broader perspective, the incidents that strike Wilentz as emblems of a terror-driven political era seem more like examples of a less easily defined series of audacities committed during roughly the same period of time, from the Brooks Brothers Riot during the 2000 Florida recount, to the Terry Schiavo saga, to the viral spread of Santelli’s Rant, to the Tea Party protests of 2009 and 2010. Indeed, it’s also worth remembering that September 11 wasn’t the only traumatic event in recent American history: We’ve seen the first impeachment of a president since 1868, the first seriously disputed presidential election result since 1876, the largest changes in mass media since the 1950s, and of course, the worst financial crisis since 1929. And, given the ideological conformity of today’s Republican Party that has all but removed the internal checks on extremist rhetoric and tactics characteristic of “big tent” political parties, it is only natural to expect such paranoid politics to keep perpetuating themselves.
It would be wonderful if we could soon look back on the politics of the early twenty-first century as a bout of temporary madness touched off by a madman in Afghanistan, and ended by a merciful act of violence in Pakistan. But I’m afraid the craziness will be with us for a while.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
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