Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Tea Party and the Mainstreaming of Kooks

When did it become acceptable to be a fanatic and get official blessing for high political office? As I've watched the elections news over this past year, I've been amazed and occasionally amused by the stranger folks who have sought elections. There's always a far-out candidate or two in any election season; that's the spice of life in a republic. But this year, they seem to be winning Republican primaries.

Last night on PBS NewsHour, three experts were being interviewed about the Tea Party movement's successes in this week's primaries, and one of the experts, a Republican strategist (sorry, I don't remember his name, and have no wish to) chastised Democrats for attacking Tea Party people as crazy when they represented the center's concerns about big government. Unfortunately, he wasn't called on that; the Democratic strategist on the panel simply said that he hadn't attacked Tea Partiers. But that wasn't the point; the point is that Democrats (and many, many Republicans and independents) who criticize the Tea Party do it because of the movement's crazy aspects; its embrace of anger without realistic solutions, its embrace of fringe ideas such as Kenyan presidents and fundamentalist Christian fever dreams. In fact, Democrats – even the White House – have gone out of their way to publicly acknowledge concerns and criticism about deficits and debt and government size.

Crazy matters, though. And it is fair to take the Tea Party to task for its crazy elements, which are not just at the edges of the movement.

Consider Christine O'Donnell, the young woman (well, she looks and talks like she's a thirty-something) who upset the GOP establishment to win that party's now-doomed nomination for the U.S. Senate seat that used to be held by Vice President Joe Biden. There are just too many juicy stories about her kookier ideas, such as her obsession with the dark niches of gay sex life, her belief in the widely discredited ex-gay movement, her belief that mast ... – let's be biblical and just call it onanism – is as sinful as adultery. Videos of her public espousal of these ideas are getting heavy play in this age of YouTube and 24-hour political blogs.

And don't get me started on Sharron Angle in Nevada.

I found myself thinking this morning that I don't remember fringe candidates getting this far earlier in my life. Granted, I grew up in Wisconsin, a state known for relatively clean and good politicians (at least in the post-Joe McCarthy era). But I later moved to Chicago, where for the first mayoral election there, Mayor Richard Daley was facing three potential Republican challengers: A professional clown, a German-American businessman, and a Hispanic businessman. The Hispanic businessman called the German candidate a Nazi, and the Nazi – I mean, the German businessman – called the Hispanic candidate an illegal alien, and the professional clown won the nomination. He lost of course, because as wild as Chicago politics gets, its citizens have low tolerance for idiocy in places of power. (The Daleys kept winning because they delivered competence, albeit not super-clean government.)

But now in American political life, the crazier the better, it seems, in some circles. With the Republicans pretty much ideologically bankrupt after eight years of giving in to the worst inclinations of their once-proud followers, all they have left is anger, and the Tea Partiers know how to leverage anger.

I am happy that the rise of fringe candidates – and O'Donnell in particular – likely means the Democrats will retain control of the U.S. Senate. But this isn't just about Democrats. I want a strong Republican party, one that is an honest conservative force to keep in check the loonier impulses of the Left. Conservatives have a very important role to play, even if they aren't doing it now. But until a party represents the good side of the Right, I can only hope for dismal election results for the current incarnation of this political party, because it has given in to the dark side.
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