Greenwald has a post up bemoaning the depressing inanity of much of the American presidential campaigntacularextravaganzathon experience. He makes a number of points with which I basically agree, and his calling attention to the rather strange erasure of Ron Paul from the ranks of “legitimate” candidates is especially apropos (yes, some of his ideas are out there, but in a world where Rick Perry – a sitting governor - thinks basic monetary policy is treasonous, I’m not sure they’re much nuttier than those of his colleagues). He makes one point, though, that got my blood up a bit:
Every four years, The Other Side is turned into the evil spawn of Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. Each and every election cycle, each party claims that — unlike in the past, when Responsible Moderates ruled and the “crazies” and radicals were relegated to the fringes (the Democrats were once the Party of Truman!; Ronald Reagan was a compromising moderate!) — the other party has now been taken over by the extremists, making it More Dangerous Than Ever Before. That the Other Side is now ruled by Supreme Evil-Doers means that anything other than full-scale fealty to their defeat is viewed as heresy. Defeat of the Real Enemy is the only acceptable goal. Election-time partisan loyalty becomes the ultimate Litmus Test of whether you’re on the side of Good: it’s the supreme With-Us-or-With-the-Terrorists test, and few are willing to endure the punishments for failing it. It’s an enforcement mechanism for Party loyalty that — by design — breeds slavish partisan fealty.
None of this has anything to do with reality. For as long as I can remember, Republicans — every election cycle — have insisted that the Democratic Party has “now become more radical than ever,” while Democrats insist that the GOP has now — for the first time ever! — been taken over by the extremists. That was what was said when Ronald Reagan was nominated in 1980 and then appointed people like Ed Meese, James Watt, and Robert Bork; it’s what was said with the rise of the Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s 1988 second-place finish in the Iowa caucus (ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush); it’s what was said of the 1994 Contract with America and the Gingrich-led GOP’s impeachment of Bill Clinton, and was repeated after Pat Buchanan’s 1992 ”culture and religious war” Convention speech in Houston and again after Buchanan’s 1996 victory in the New Hampshire primary; and it’s what was said repeatedly throughout the Bush/Cheney presidency.
I’m sure campaigners have been saying this for as long as Greenwald can remember. They’ve certainly been saying it for as long as I can. Here’s the thing though: They’ve generally been right. The last forty years have seen a fairly steady, relatively linear process of polarization between America’s two political parties. As the rather odd ideological heterogeneity that prevailed during the mid-twentieth century has given way to a much more sharply defined bipartisan structure, the makeup of both parties has gotten consistently more “extreme” in a relative sense. I’m not just arguing this by assertion. It’s a phenomenon that’s been empirically mapped in a reasonably sophisticated way. Furthermore, the Republicans really have gotten more “extreme” than the Democrats.
Now, the studies to which I link above focus on parties’ House and Senate delegations, not presidential candidates. It’s obviously true that Democrats and (especially) Republicans have had candidates emerge over the course of their nominating cycles that roughly match the extremity of people there now (though, I’m sorry, 1990s Newt Gingrich ≠ today’s Rick Perry). I think it’s hard to argue, though, that they held commensurate ideological influence within the Republican establishment. Would Greenwald really assert that the Moral Majority of the 1980s held the Republican party in an ideological grip comparable to that of the current Tea Party? Is there anyone in the current Republican establishment, never mind someone electable, who would call supply side chicanery “voodoo economics“? It’s not just that there are “extreme” candidates on offer. It’s that there aren’t the counterbalancing forces within the Republican party on which one could previously count as moderating influences.
There used to be Rockerfeller Republicans. There used to be Republicans who had grudgingly made their peace with the pillars of the American welfare state. There used to be Republicans who, on the most crucial domestic issue axis (the economy, and government’s regulatory and redistributive role therein) could be trusted to act with a modicum of responsibility. I don’t see those around anymore. I do see a political environment where people like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry dominate the conversation in a way Pat Robertson never managed to do. That really does represent a further shift toward the “extreme.” It’s not just something political consultants have made up.