I don’t blame Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, Rand Paul, Ken Buck and others in the Far (F)right. I blame the voters – at least Republican primary voters and kvetching Democrats. As Mel Brooks said in the guise of Louis IV in The History of the World, “the people are revolting!”
While these Tea Party candidates basically ran and won as Howard Beale yelling “We’re Mad as Hell,” the Republican base has an even more telling slogan, “We’re Stupid as Hell.”
How else to explain that over half of Republicans say in polls that they believe that Barack Obama, having obtained 53 percent of the popular presidential vote and 364 electoral votes in a fair contest, was either born abroad, a muslim, a communist or wants to impose Sharia law in this country? Or all four?
If half of a major party believe “nutty” things, why should we be surprised when candidates seeking nominations argue that rape victims cannot have abortions, Social Security and Unemployment Insurance are unconstitutional and we should abolish the EPA and Departments of Education and Energy -and that’s not including Ms. O’Donnell’s odd career and comments. Then there’s Newt Gingrich’s weekly hate speech, from calling Sonia Sotomayor a racist to saying that the President has as a Kenyan anti-colonialist view and is “worse than Hitler and Stalin.” He suffers from Obama Tourette’s Syndrome.
We’ve seen versions of such outbreaks before in our history – the Salem Witch Trials, the Know-Nothing Party, America-Firsters, and Birchers and McCarthyites in the ’50s implying that Eisenhower was disloyal. More recently, GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 famously declared,with Tea Party-like prescience, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” – and got creamed that November.
Like locusts awakening after a half century slumber, they’re back! Not as a laughable Bircher fringe talking about flouride in our water as a communist plot but radicals who appear to be taking over a major party.
How is this possible in a modern educated democracy? When people are economically scared and when 40 percent of all Republicans regularly get their information from Fox News alone (and millions more from Rush Limbaugh) – with both spreading entertaining, routine lies about “death panels” and Muslims=Terrorists – some credulous, anxious people can end up believing that America is a tyranny run by “the best anti-American president ever” (Limbaugh).
Of course this is all nuts. But remember the title and lesson of Drew Westen’s popular book of two years ago, The Politics of the Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Could rhetorical abstractions against Big Government and for We-the-People connect to the “lizard brains” of swing voters, in Westen’s and Arianna Huffington’s phrase, and vote against their interests? Tom Frank thought so in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?
With six weeks to go before the mid-term elections and 110 before the next presidential one, those who don’t think we should go back to the ’50s – the 1850s or 1950s – can get off the couch to do six things:
- Moderates and liberals need to stop whining and vote. An average of only 50,000 GOP voters nominated O’Donnell, Angle and Miller – Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have national favorable ratings of only 20%. The Tea Party gets headlines but the, well, silent majority have the votes. If “Speaker” Boehner and “Chairman” Joe (I-Love-BP) Barton don’t close the “enthusiasm” gap, Democrats don’t deserve to hold either chamber – and won’t.
- Bloggers and intellectuals who spend 90 percent of their time attacking why Obama hasn’t single-handedly changed Washington – “but there’s no Public Option!” — should consider spending more energy exposing a team that believes in the Constitution but not the Bill of Rights (2nd and 10th amendments excepted). Making the perfect the enemy of the good is an unaffordable luxury this year and fulfills Bill Clinton’s jibe that Democrats have to fall in love while Republicans fall in line.
- Journalist poohbahs like a Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times have to stop pretending that for every wacko on the Right there’s one on the Left. Truth is not a mid-point between race-baiters and rationalists, between Fox and MSNBC, between Sharron Angle and Barney Frank. It’s ok to objectively distinguish between the mainstream and the extreme.
- Where are today’s GOP leaders with the courage to stand up for religious freedom in Manhattan and against Gingrich’s bird-whistle racism, like the way that William F. Buckley Jr. ran the Birchers out of his party? If you don’t like Obama’s policies, can’t some leading Republican say, ok, let’s electorally organize to defeat him, not personally slander him. For good measure, this heroic Republican could add that denying a federal role in health care or elderly poverty or clean air is anti-history. Reagan didn’t reverse the New Deal; Thatcher didn’t end national health.
- President Obama should stay on offense. After being a presidential piñata, he finally found his voice after Labor Day by warning against going back to a Bush era that gave us a record recession, historic deficits, a murderous war of choice, and a man-made disaster following Katrina. Polls show a decided Democratic advantage (55-37% in Greenberg) when the White House presents the tax debate as cuts for the middle class versus tax cuts of $100,000+ apiece for those earning over a million dollars annually, not to mention Senator Mitch McConnell’s floor statement last week that we should help those “most hurt by this recession”, the top 2%!
- Humor, finally, may be the best way to respond to awake voters from their momentary mass hysteria. The Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert events on October 30 in Washington – “Rally to Restore Sanity” and “Rally to Keep Fear Alive” — may have just the edge necessary to explain how ironic it would be to punish Democrats for an economy that nearly collapsed under Republican policies and Wall Street speculation. While Obama throws punches, Comedy Central can throw out punch-lines.
Half of the GOP and a fifth of America may cheer on a “mad” Tea Party that embraces a Blame-Government-First philosophy, but whether it’s a fad or the future is up to us, first this November and then in two years. The winners in a Democracy are not measured by polls but those who go to the polls.
Mark Green, the former New York public advocate, is the creator and host of a new nationally syndicated radio show, Both Sides Now with Huffington & Matalin.