Thursday, April 16, 2009

How much attention to give "crazy"?


As a rule, I prefer to give it less attention than more when it comes to the news.

But when a significant portion of our political and media culture is driven by crazy, that becomes tougher.

And when you hear stuff like this: Gov. Perry talks Secession for Texas at a tea party: "Texas Can leave Union If It Wants To" by John Amato, Crooks and Liars blog 04/15/09, you have to really wonder what's going on. John Amato's quotes in the story don't include those exact words. But they do include Gov. Goodhair saying, "Texas is a unique place. When we came into the Union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that." And saying by way of explanation, "We got a great Union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it, but if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that." It's not clear in the audio if the second comment immediately followed the first.

Perry appeared at one of the "tea parties" to speak. He has recently endorsed a move in the Texas legislature to formally re-affirm Texas "sovereignty", a rhetorical buzzword on the "Patriot" movement, far-right. On the real-world issue of sovereignty, states are sovereign within the sphere of their authority. Their sovereignty is overruled in many areas by federal sovereignty, just as local sovereignty is overruled by state sovereignty. The "Patriot" types seem to be going on the notion, apparently introduced into political theory by John C. Calhoun in the pre-Civil War days, that "sovereignty" was an absolute concept, that is, if a state is sovereign, then no other entity can have sovereignty over it. The concept was not understood that way before then. Nor is it understood that way anywhere outside the far right and, apparently, a growing proportion of the Republican Party.


On the tea-parties, I like the thoughts from several of my "usual suspects", like Joan Walsh in Party like it's 1995! by Joan Walsh Salon 04/15/09 and Joe Conason in The Tea Party Brigade: Obama Couldn't Ask for Better Enemies PolitickerNY.com 04/14/09. Joan writes:

Of course, the real irony, maybe even tragedy, of the Tea Party movement is the fact that it's Obama who kept a campaign promise and lowered taxes on roughly 95 percent of American taxpayers. How many folks attending the protests do you expect will know that? There may even be a significant percentage of Tea Partiers who could be penalized by high-balance fees by the credit card companies or who might ultimately need help with their mortgages. Sucks to be those guys! Expect the president to spend much of April 15 talking about his tax cuts and other assistance for struggling, middle-income Americans. Let's hope his message gets through, even to some of the Tea Party attendees. There's still so much class-unconsciousness going on.

To me the most laughable aspect of the Tax Day protests is the leadership role taken by has-beens like Newt Gingrich and the ever-creepy Dick Armey. (No teabagging jokes, please!) Let's remember when Armey insisted President Clinton's minor tax increases in the mid-'90s would destroy the economy; of course the Clinton years turned out to be an economic golden age. Why does being wrong never hurt guys like Dick? As Joe Conason notes, when Armey left Congress for his banking- and tobacco-funded golden parachute Freedom Works, his first failed project was to try to organize Astroturf groups supporting Social Security privatization. I expect Armey's Tea Party movement to be just as effective.
The problem is, though, even though Obama or the Democrats may not show a drop in popularity in the polls, after all, Armey's goal to phase out Social Security remains an active Republican favorite. And members of the Obama administration have been making noises about heading in that direction, as well.

I can't seem to find a transcript. But I saw a bit of Rachel Maddow's show Tuesday night and she was interviewing Howard Dean. She asked him something to the effect of, with the Republicans going so far overboard with their rhetoric about socialism-communism-fascism and this FOX News/Dick Armey tea-party hoopla, isn't the only serious discussion about economic policy going on within the Democratic Party right now.

But as Paul Krugman reminded us in the column I quoted a few days ago, the Republicans have been for years now in the position of the narrator in Britney Spears' current hit song "Womanizer":

You say I'm crazy
I've got your crazy


Or, as Krugman himself put it: "But here’s the thing: the G.O.P. looked as crazy 10 or 15 years ago as it does now. That didn’t stop Republicans from taking control of both Congress and the White House."

When the Christian Right was first coalescing as a political force during the Carter administration, what were then called "single-issue" groups ran ads - mostly focusing on abortion - in states where Democratic Senators were up for election in 1978, beginning well before the elections. The ads specifically attacked the Democratic incumbents. Pollsters found (or at least the pundits and reporters related) that even though voters didn't much remember the ads themselves by election time, they had still been effective in creating a negative impression of the candidate. The particular accusation didn't stick nearly so much as the negativity itself did. And several experienced Democratic Senators were defeated in 1978, more in 1980.

A lot has changed since then. Not least is the state of virtual continuous campaigning that now defines national and Congressional politics. But neither the obvious dishonesty and/or hysteria of the accusations, nor the fact that they don't damage Obama or the Democrats in the opinion polls immediately, mean that the attacks will be ineffective. There's the extreme negativity itself being pumped out from the Mighty Wurlitzer of Republican media. There's the aspect that the hysterics of the Glenn Becks of the "conservative movement" will allow Republicans candidates in 2010 to come off as sober and even moderate if they just show up with a clean shave and refrain from foaming at the mouth.

And there's the hard-to-measure but important effect of what Josh Marshall dubbed the bitch-slap tactic at which the Republicans are well practiced: the Reps make some sleazy and/or frivolous attack, the Dems respond in an evasive or whiny way rather than by an in-your-face refutation, and the impression is left with some voters that the Democrats are "weak".

There's a constantly-shifting balanced between reacting enough to now let major attacks go unchallenged, on the one hand, and over-reacting, on the other.

But in the commentary I'm seeing and hearing from some of my favorite blogs and also from MSNBC's infotainment-for-liberals pundits Olbermann and Maddow, it's awfully tempting for Dems to just try to sneer things like the "tea-parties" away. Sure, generally crazy-ass notions like saying Obama is a fascist-socialist-communist and not having the faintest idea what any of those things actually are, those kinds of claims deserve ridicule. Because they are ridiculous.

But these tea-party events and the non-stop McCarthyist/Bircher hysteria from the leading blowhards of the Republican Party are important ways of keeping the base engaged and involving people at some level in organizational structures and political networks. Some large portion of what the Christan Right has been saying about politics since the Carter administration has also been ridiculous, and much of it bad theology to boot. But it hasn't stopped them from being a continuing political power.

Last but by no means least, our national political press is seriously, big-time screwed up. They are suckers for a lot of this Republican hoopla. And all too often willing suckers. The fact that the Republican Party's leading ideas of the moment may be loony, reckless and/or completely irresponsible is no barrier at all to our "press corps" taking them very seriously. And using them to frame their reporting and punditry. And inventing additional scripts equally kooky and worse.

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