Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Jimmy Carter, International Terrorist

Matthew Yglesias has a post today in which he notes that a certian wing-nut blogger has basically accused Jimmy Carter of being a traitor. I followed the link to that blog and the blogger bases his conclusion on the fact that in September 2004, Carter went on record as saying that he thought the security sitation in Iraq was too unstable to have an election in January. That, my friends, is what it takes apparently to be accused of "going to the other side": stating one's opinion about a national security issue after analyzing the facts. Nice.

Matt raises the question whether these sort of broad accustions, which are increasingly common among the wingnuts on the internet, have a debasing effect on our national debate. One of his commenters concludes that very likely it does not, noting that there's always been a lunatic fringe in American politics. On that point I would agree, but overall I would not.

If you go to the 6th Floor of the Book Repository in Dallas, you can visit the museum dedicated to JFK's assassination. Among other exhibits are samples of letters to the editor of the various Dallas-area newspapers in the early 1960s. The level of vitriol, hatred and ignorance in those letters is remarkably similar to that you hear now on right-wing talk radio. When I first read these letters in 1991 or 1992, I was just amazed that people actually believed those sorts of things. Almost 15 years later, I have to say that it no longer surprises me. The Limbaughs and Savages of this world have been ranting, whining and spewing their hate for so long, that it seems to have become an accepted part of political milieu. I would not go so far as Matt's commenter (The Navigator) as to conclude that this has no effect on our political system, though.

Perhaps in the 1960s or even the early 1990s the lunatic fringe had little or no effect on national politics. Today, I'm afraid it does. This effect, generally in the form of polarization of political interactions, is especially evident in Congress. Starting in 1994 and continuing until today, many Republicans in the House (and a few in the Senate) have embraced the sort of maximalist radicalism that drives the far right wing in this country. In the last century Congress has typically worked on a system of cooperation and compromise. My impression is that laws were often passed with large majorities after extensive committee and conference work. The two parties and two chambers worked together to find mutually agreeable legislative positions. This system is long gone. Laws are now passed with bare majorities, generally split on party lines. Dennis Hastert has enforced a rule that no legislation will come to the floor for a vote in the House unless it has a majority of Republicans on its side. Thus, bills that might garner bi-partisan majority support in the House will never see the light of day. Cooperation is dead and Republicans have adopted the politics of domination instead. Why? I suspect that as long as they don't alienate their moderate wing, Republicans know it's the lunatic fringe that wins them elections.

So what does this portend for American politics? I don't have a clue. I would suggest, though, that radicalism has never been good for governance and the people governed. Ultimately, radicalism is the rejection of reason and reason, my friends, is what this country was built upon. The Constitution is an Enlightenment document, predicated on the idea that citizens are basically reasonable, but when they are not, the separation of powers in government will serve to hinder their basest instincts. When the people who make up our government lose sight of that fact or, even worse, reject that idea for the sake of short-term political expediency, then we are in trouble. It is a short step from foresaking the ideas and values underlying our Constitution, to foresaking the Constitution itself.