Monday, May 24, 2010

Should we pretend extremists aren't extremists?

Chip Berlet has a good piece of reporting on the Tea Party Republicans in Taking Tea Partiers Seriously The Progressive Feb 2010. but the quality of the reporting isn't matched by the quality of his political analysis, which seems downright unrealistic. He believes that those particularly committed to Tea Party politics are open to voting for progressive Democrats. But he's not very specific on what he means by "progressive organizing".

He is more clear that he thinks we shouldn't use any labels for the Tea Party that might offend the tender feelings of this nice white folks:

This type of savvy progressive organizing, however, is hampered by constant demonizing rhetoric coming from the Democrats and their liberal allies, rhetoric that portrays the majority of Americans who are angry at the government as crazies and fools. Outside the beltway, this type of snide nastiness increases the percentage of doors slammed in the face of progressive grassroots organizers trying to reach out to broader audiences.

We need to be wary of the way centrists in both the Republican and Democratic Parties distort and confine the political dialogue. In their model, they are a noble and heroic center defending society from the “extremists” of the left and right. By using terms like “extremism” and trivializing dissident ideas as dangerous or crackpot, centrists are defending the status quo. They create the impression that dissident organizers are simply the advance guard for political insurgency, violence in the streets, and terrorism. The term “Radical Religious Right,” for example, is designed by Democrats to get liberals to lump together the Christian Right with armed neo-Nazi terrorists. Flip this model over, and the term “extremism” is used by centrists to dismiss progressives as scary utopian radical troublemakers secretly building bombs in our basements. The “centrist-extremist” model is also used by law enforcement to justify spying on dissident groups on the left and right.

The application of “centrist-extremist” theory reinforces an elitist view of democracy and suggests that only certain people are capable of participation in “serious” policy debates. It also implies that policy debates confined only to ideas validated by the political “center” should be taken seriously in civil society. Progressives, therefore, should be careful about using the term “extremism” or “extremist” as a label for political ideas or action they oppose. The model favored by centrists marginalizes “extremists of the right and left” and thus undercuts progressive ideas for the fundamental reordering of priorities in the United States. [my emphasis]

Berlet there combines a valid observation about how "centrism" is often used to stigmatize some ideas as lacking normative validity. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't distingush between genuinely extreme ideas and more mainstream ones. His analysis confuses two different things. He writes:

Polling over the past thirty years shows that when Democrats forcefully stress issues such as relieving poverty or seeking peace, some independents and Republican voters who oppose abortion or gay rights will vote for a Democratic Presidential candidate despite their continued allegiance to gender-based hot button issues. This makes the Democratic Party rush to the political center, continued troop deployments, and retreat from abortion and gay rights even more morally reprehensible and politically misguided.
But from everything we know about the Tea Party movement, their supporters are not opponents of abortion or gay rights who are open to voting for Democratic candidates.

Given that his prescription seems to assume some pristine political environment without any rudeness like name-calling or ridiculing claims of the other side, how is this folowing suggestion "to rebuild militant progressive movements and raise a ruckus" remotely possible? How can you "raise a ruckus" without actually aggressively challenging the positions of your opponents?

But no matter how the electoral political battles turn out, the trivialization of rightwing populism must stop. It is toxic to democracy in a general sense. And it also results in an increasingly hostile environment for immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Arabs, reproductive rights activists, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.

When centrist liberals toss smug and dismissive names at the current rightwing populist revolt, they make it more difficult for progressive organizers to reach out to unconvinced people who see their neighbors (and perhaps themselves) unfairly labeled as stupid or crazy.

The only way to counter the resurgent right is to rebuild militant progressive movements and raise a ruckus. Then, even as we rally our base, we have a chance of convincing some on the right that what we stand for will actually help them. But we can’t get there by name-calling.
But how are you going to have democratic politics in the real world without supporting your side's own ideas and running down those of the opposition in some way? That doesn't mean that every kind of criticism of the opposition is equally legitimate. But Berlet seems to be hoping for the politeness of a typical church service to become the norm for democratic politics. That just ain't gonna happen.

Here he conflates "crazy" political ideas with personal pathology:

But there is no social science evidence that people who join rightwing movements are any more or less crazy or ignorant than their neighbors. While some have psychological predilections for authoritarianism and tend to see the world in overly simplified “us” vs. “them” terms, the same predilections can be found on the political left. This is also true with belief in conspiracy theories. Two serious demographic studies of the membership of the John Birch Society demonstrate that Birchers are generally above average in income, education, and social status.
Whether a political movement has "crazy" ideas is quite a different thing that whenther they adopt such ideas out of some personal pathology. Here he echoes conservative whining by treating rhetoric attacking the Tea Party political movement with rhetoric personally attacking the individuals as crazy. I don't want to be prissy with this myself. Personal pathology can and does play a role in politics, and not only in the "extreme" versions. All of political marketing could be seen as based on some assumption about voter psychology. But we should stop calling crazy ideas and actions crazy in the false hope that somehow its going to turn Tea Party activists in flaming liberals.

I don't think anyone doubts there can be individual point of agreement between liberal Democrats and Tea Partiers on particular issues at some given moment in time. The bill to audit the Federal Reserve is one example. But that's a drastically different thing than assuming that a clearly reationary, Republican-partisan mass mobilization like the Tea Party movement is open in any short-term time horizon to becoming liberal Democrats.

Hat tip to Tristero at Hullabaloo for the link, from his own excellent post on Berlet's comments in Chip Berlet on the Tea Party 05/22/2010.


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