Just since Monday, a Minnesota state representative has called homosexuality “an unhealthy, sexual addiction”; a Texas Representative has compared the “immorality of wild, lavish spending” to the “two most horrendous things this country has done,” which are “slavery and abortion”; and a New Hampshire state representative has opined that “a lot of people like being in abusive relationships.” These quotes come from Teagan Goddard (a relatively neutral political aggregator), but I suspect he found them because liberal blogs and social media quickly disseminate right-wingers’ statements that will offend majority voters. Drudge and others spread liberals’ remarks on the right, but I don’t follow them closely enough to assess whether this pattern is symmetrical.
To some extent, what we observe is a classic feature of competitive politics, especially in a two-party system. Each party accommodates a wide range of views, but winning means satisfying the median voter. (And despite claims that the American people are polarized, in fact the median voter still remains the modal voter–most people are near the middle.) That means that each ideological extreme inevitably threatens its own party’s leaders and contenders for national office. To the extent that median or “swing” voters hear the extreme views, the party suffers. I say this without prejudice against the so-called extremes, which may happen to have the best views, on their merits. I am just making a point about the political game.
Although this core reality is perennial, things have changed in two respects. First, the Internet encourages the rapid and mass dissemination of extreme remarks by otherwise obscure office-holders and talk-radio hosts. Twenty years ago, would I have heard a Minnesota legislator’s latest thoughts about homosexuality? Rush Limbaugh started with one audience, the people who listened to his live radio show. On the whole, they agreed with him and they heard his whole package, including mainstream ideas as well as remarks that would offend most Americans. Now Limbaugh has two audiences: his friendly listeners plus enormous numbers of other people who just read his most outrageous statements (sampled here) on their Facebook page or in blogs. The importance of that second audience seems hard to overstate.
The other change involves the specific ideological positioning of the two parties. In the 1960s and 1970s, an obstreperous radical left drew a lot of attention. Again, I make no comment about the validity of the radicals’ views–I happen to share some of them, and some have become mainstream. But from a partisan political perspective, the radicals were a threat to national Democrats. And so national Democrats went after them. Starting as early as LBJ, they found opportunities to denounce left-liberals and radicals, called them out by name, and even took illegal and unethical actions against them, such as siccing the Chicago police on them in 1968. They also started formal organizations to debate them–including, in different ways, Americans for Democratic Action and the Democratic Leadership Council.
Many ugly scars were left. To this day, when a Democratic politician like President Obama is seen as disparaging his “base,” that triggers a whole history of conflict and resentment on both sides. I think the tensions were actually worse under Clinton, who faced a significant third-party challenge in 1996. But the net result, from a purely partisan perspective, is daylight between the actual American left and the Democratic Party’s leadership. Conservatives may keep saying that Obama is a socialist, but 61% of people put the President somewhere on the spectrum from “very conservative” to “somewhat liberal.”
As for Republicans: it is demonstrable that their party accommodates a wide range of views and includes moderate voters and legislators. But the new Web environment magnifies the voices of their radical right. Particularly for young people (who can’t remember an earlier time), the GOP is defined by memorable viral quotes about legitimate rape, race, and Obama’s birth certificate. In contrast to the Democrats, the Republicans lack an organized effort to separate themselves from that stuff. They make general noises about not being the “stupid party” (Bobby Jindal), but that is nothing in comparison to the public battles between national Democratic leaders and specific radicals over 40 years.
If you want people to know that you disagree with your own flank, you have to attack it. That means picking deliberate fights with prominent individuals and organizations. You can’t talk in generalities or ignore the most prominent radicals because they have too many supporters. You have to call them out. That will produce outrage from your own “base,” but the volume of the controversy is actually helpful if your goal is to communicate to a busy public that you are different from your own radical fringe. That is what Democratic politicians achieved in the Clinton era, and it was ugly. I was often on the left’s side in those fights. But, as Jesse Jackson, Sr used to say, it takes two wings to fly. I think that even today, both parties have ideological breadth, but only the Democrats give the impression that they fly with two wings. The perceived dominance of the Republican right is killing their chances, especially with young people.