The usefulness of the wacky fringe

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtyKofFih8Y]

As Barack Obama enters his second term, speculation is predictably high about every aspect of what’s coming up: new policy proposals, the specter of continued gridlock on Capitol Hill, a heavy docket of significant rulings pending at the Supreme Court, and so on.

Central to this debate is the question of whether Obama will be able to leverage his electoral triumph into real momentum for his policy agenda. Will the Republicans continue to draw from their playbook of the last four years, or will they be inclined to compromise more in the wake of their poor showing at the polls in November?

Despite the partial fragmentation of the national GOP between moderates — in the most relative, unanchored sense of the term — such as John Boehner and party hardliners like Michele Bachmann, early indications are that Republicans are unlikely to shift much until at least the 2014 midterms, depending on how they do.

Which brings me to the above video, of radio host Alex Jones displaying an alarming mental instability on a nationally televised show inexplicably hosted by Piers Morgan. Say what you want about Morgan, but at least he had the good sense to shut up, for the most part, during this “interview” and allow the world to see just how unhinged the gun nut really was.

But it also made me think about the nature of political conversation in the U.S. these days. For years now, the right has not only allowed, but often actively encouraged, radical and unreasonable rhetoric, for the simple reason that it helps rile up the base and inspire them to increase public pressure on Democrats, vote for Republicans, donate money, and so on. That’s an understandable short-term goal (it helps in the next election), but it’s produced impressive long-term benefits as well: each time a foaming-at-the-mouth conservative espouses an armed takeover of Washington or impeachment of the president for allegedly not being a naturally-born American or whatever else, the right-wing boundary of acceptable conversation shifts further right.

The problem is, there’s no counteroffensive from the left, which generally polices its commentary to an astounding degree (especially surprising given the increasingly partisan nature of American politics). Insane leftists don’t fare well in the United States. But crazies are the mainstream across the aisle.

There are several reasons for this. For one, there’s really no American far left to speak of these days. Even in Europe, which has moved steadily right in recent years to the jaunty tune of “austerity measures” and “shutting borders to Islamic fundamentalists,” lefties retain much of their glamour. (See Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, for example.) But in the U.S., we’re confined largely to the likes of Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and a smattering of others, all of whom have their devoted followings but none of whom enjoy the warm embrace of large swaths of the population at large or have any real political power.

Another reason for the prominence of right-wing insanity is, ironically enough, liberal media establishments. (No, I do not mean that the media establishment at large is liberal; I’m referring specifically to the media institutions that are liberal, such as MSNBC and a host of online blogs and news sites such as the Huffington Post.) The first one to trumpet something stupid said by a lowly or irrelevant Republican is usually a member of a Democratic-leaning media organization. This makes sense when the said troublemaker is reasonably significant, but in recent years the left has played an outsized role in promoting people such as Orly Taitz, ineffective and mostly impotent members of Congress like Allen West and Michele Bachmann, and even a thoroughly discredited post-2008 Sarah Palin — the last of whose every sideways glance the press breathlessly reports as if it signaled the Second Coming, even as she and her family have drifted into tawdry, broadsheet-worthy behavior (see Palin, Bristol).

Without a huge assist from left-wing media promoters, all such tragic humans would have faded slowly from the spotlight (to varying degrees, of course: Sarah Palin will always be more interesting than Orly Taitz). Instead, they’re kept front and center in our public consciousness by “media watchdogs” like Mediaite — which, by the way, uploaded the above video. It’s time to start ignoring people whose most recent credentials include, for example, stints on reality TV (a growing subset of Americans, to be sure, but not one I’m ever interested in hearing about).

But whatever the causes, one consequence consistently remains: right-wing brashness dominates the news cycle while liberals mostly cower in fear. And this state of affairs has started to make me wonder whether the American progressive sector would do well to unleash its own attack dogs a little more often.

Take the Newtown massacre, for example, and try to imagine the GOP and Democrats on opposite sides of the gun control debate from where they are now: in other word, Democrats against gun control, and Republicans in favor of it. Would the right have waited several days, as did Obama, and then given a speech in favor of some very vague “changes,” then waited even longer before finally announcing the conclusions of a study group led by the vice president that would result in a myriad of mostly ineffective and insignificant executive orders and a thoroughly unambitious legislative agenda?

Of course not. We know this because guys like Rep. Louie Gohmert were appearing on TV shows within a day or two of the shooting and saying they only wished there’d been more guns at the school. Then the NRA held its notorious press conference and made things even worse. I’m using the words “notorious” and “worse,” however, in a very relative sense, since in reality the event was quite successful from a far right perspective: it once again slammed the door in the face of timid liberal attempts to ever so slightly nudge public policy.

So what I’m saying is, the next time something like Newtown happens — and there will be a next time, as we all know by now — I don’t want to hear Democrats and liberals clamoring all over each other to be the first to demand an assault weapons ban. That is a quintessential Democratic tactic, and one that Barack Obama has practically made his trademark: beginning the negotiation by asking for exactly what he hopes to get by the end. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is a horrendous strategy in any situation, but it’s even worse when the counterpart is an increasingly unpredictable and radical political party.

Instead, we should hear people calling for a repeal of the Second Amendment. I’d love to have that conversation play out on the national stage. Of course, there are several issues with this approach. For one, the media has a funny way of discounting staunch leftist rhetoric in a way it doesn’t on the right. But again, I think this has become a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: the media doesn’t necessarily have any ingrown bias against leftism, but they’ve developed artificially skewed boundaries of acceptable discourse anyway because that’s what they’ve been exposed to for so long. Destroying that stasis won’t happen overnight, but it has to start somewhere.

Perhaps the larger problem is that almost no Americans would support such a proposition (repeal). But why does that matter? A wide array of social movements — from women’s to civil to gay rights and more — took their first steps in a landscape of profound public hostility to their objectives. And anyway, my point isn’t actually to repeal the Second Amendment. The point is to make a big enough deal about it so that the proposals from the opposite side — say, arming teachers in every school — get taken right off the proverbial table.

Indeed, such was the promise of Occupy Wall Street. Unfortunately, the movement failed to crystallize into something truly permanent. But despite Occupy’s short, limited role, the entire national conversation shifted rather dramatically for a time. Today, it is commonplace to hear politicians and public figures speak of the 99%, the 1%, and so on, but these were concepts only just recently introduced into the broader lexicon. And at least as importantly, it served as a heavy counterweight to the classist “takers” rhetoric coming from the right. Would Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comment have exploded nearly as loudly as it did if Occupy Wall Street hadn’t raised the issue of middle-class exploitation just months before?

I think not. Although the movement ultimately fizzled out, the ragtag group consisting largely of students, social misfits, hipsters, and the unemployed briefly jolted the boundaries of discourse in the opposite direction from their long-term trajectory. The question is whether that shift represented an insignificant and temporary diversion from the mean, or a useful lesson on how to conduct political warfare in the future. Yes, the Democrats have managed to win the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. But just imagine what the left could accomplish if it actually started fighting.

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