Politics has never been gentle. John Randolph of Roanoke once said of two of his colleagues, congressmen Robert Wright and John Rea (pronounced Ray), that the House possessed two anomalies “A Wright always wrong; and a Rea without light.”
And crowds were vicious in previous generations too. When Earl Warren was seeking reelection as Governor of California he said: “I’m pleased to see such a dense crowd here tonight.” A heckler interrupted him: “Don’t be too pleased governor, we aint all dense.” But what’s different today is that while politicians’ invective and hecklers’ shouts used to at least bring smiles to the faces of spectators, today it’s mostly unimaginative and unprintable.
Today hecklers on the right at anti-Obama rallies carry signs such as “Don’t Make the U.S. a Third World Country – Go Back to Kenya;” “We Came Unarmed (This Time);” “Barack Obama Supports Abortion, Sodomy, Socialism and the New World Order;” and “Muslim Marxist.” The other side is just at bad. At anti-Bush rallies during the last presidency, people held signs like “Death to Extremist Christian Terrorist Pig Bush,” “Save Mother Earth, Kill Bush,” and “Bush is the Disease, Death is the Cure.” No wit there (or even proper punctuation.)
The craziest of today’s politicians and protesters, on both sides of the aisle, are introduced to readers in John Avlon’s latest book, “Wingnuts: How the lunatic fringe is hijacking America.” “Wingnuts” is Mr. Avlon’s (who also hosts a CNN segment on the subject) name for the “extremes from both sides of the political aisle, for whom name-calling, demagoguery, and down-right nastiness is their mode of communication.” And there are similarities between the two extremes in tactics and even in causes. Interestingly Mr. Avlon traces the origins of the now right-wing Birther Movement – which claims that President Obama was not born in America – to the far-left during the 2008 Democratic primaries.
Crazy people on both extremes have always existed. Not everyone in Earl Warren’s crowd was as quick-witted (or polite) as that heckler. But what’s disturbing today is how mainstream the extremists have become. It’s easy to discount the singer Harry Belafonte who traveled to Venezuela, embraced Hugo Chavez, and declared: “No matter what the great tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says …” as another unhinged celebrity. But when Republican Congressmen Trent Franks calls President Obama “an enemy of humanity,” and Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson calls Republicans “the enemy of America,” it’s clear that a deeper problem exists.
Part of the blame for the extremism, Mr. Avlon (a respected political independent) says, is because of the way the two political parties operate. Closed primaries, for example, force politicians to pander to the extremes. (Open primaries, in contrast, force politicians to appeal to centrists too.) And within today’s parties, anyone who doesn’t completely embrace the party line is shunned. At the moment, Mr. Avlon says, “My party, right or wrong,” is replacing “My country, right or wrong.”
Mr. Avlon is right in challenging that attitude. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying ‘my mother, drunk or sober.’” Saying “my party, right or wrong,” is even less logical. It’s like saying, “my bus driver, drunk or sober.”
It’s likely that the criticisms Mr. Avlon makes of the political parties will resonate with many Americans. They used to be more accepting of divergent views. The Republican Party, for example, was a place where pro-immigration advocates were welcome (just think President Reagan), today it’s less friendly. The Democratic Party in turn used to be a place where national security hawks could find a home (think Senator Henry Jackson), less so today. It’s probably in a large part because of this hostile environment that Independents are the largest political grouping in the U.S., as Mr. Avlon notes.
The characteristics of “wingnuts” remind me of some of the crazy people I met in university. Back then I wrote off their lunacy by citing Henry Kissinger’s line that “university politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” But the stakes aren’t small on the national stage, so it’s good to see someone calling them out.
Daniel Freedman is director of policy analysis and communications at the Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy.