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April 21, 2009

Extreme, or Not Extreme, on the Right

There were three big stories in the news last week in which the conservative movement collided with the idea of extremism. No, I'm not calling the Republicans a bunch of extremists. But all three stories touched the idea of extremism in some way.

First, there were Tuesday's Tax Day Tea Parties. No, there's nothing inherently dangerous, crazy or extreme about the tea parties. Certain segments of the conservative base really don't like taxes, and they came out against them. The organizers deserve credit for a strong turnout, but ultimately, for reasons stated below, I'm not certain you can call the event a success.

Many observers have compared the protests to the anti-war protests of the early Bush years, and the comparison is apt: A lack of focus. Overheated talk of "tyranny" and "fascism." Much concentration on issues having nothing at all to do with the matter at hand. A small minority of crazies that were disproportionally passionate and loud. An ethos that was by, for, and about the base, and not really about drawing in skeptics or swing voters.

And most similarly of all there was very little chance of actually making any difference. The anti-Iraq war protests in February 2003 may have been the most largely-attended worldwide political protest gathering in recent human history, but it still didn't prevent the war. Just as I don't expect the tea parties to lead to any dent being made in President Obama's popularity, nor to any big political victories for the GOP or the right in general.

Another similarity between the 2003 and 2009 protests: Both sides were wrong about the fascism. For one thing, mass protests against the sitting government, held in multiple cities that aren't crushed by police or the military, aren't normally a feature of true fascist nations. But even more absurd is this idea that a government doing something you don't like is "tyranny." "Taxation without representation," the supposed reason the original Boston Tea Party is being emulated, means that you're taxed without having a vote or a say in who wins. It does not mean that the government you voted against is doing things you don't like. Democracy doesn't mean you always get to win.

And that's ultimately the key fallacy of the tea parties they work from the assumption that Obama is an extremist president pushing extremist politics, when in fact neither supposition is true.

There was also the furor last week over a Department of Homeland Security report on the "Threat of Right-Wing Extremism." The actual report referred to such figures as militias and white-supremacist groups, as well as various "lone nuts," such as Timothy McVeigh and the guy who shot three cops in Pittsburgh last week. It even followed an earlier report on left-wing extremism.

But the right-wing punditocracy interpreted a study on "right-wing extremism" as "Hey, that's us!" Even though the report was talking about McVeigh types not Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin types it was still interpreted, disingenuously, as an attack on the military, or possibly on conservative philosophy itself.

But dishonest as those people were, at least they weren't hinting at secession.

That's what Texas Gov. Rick Perry left the door open for last week. Perry spoke at the tea party in Austin, as some crowd members shouted "Secede!" When asked by reporters about the calls afterward, Perry at first dismissed the idea, but then stated that "if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that."

Texas is iconoclastic, more so than most states, and it has a unique history. I get that. And I'm certain that the state will never, ultimately, secede, or is even allowed to. But the governor of one of America's largest states hinted to a large, cheering audience for possible secession! That should be interesting if Perry ever runs for president.

The tea parties brought a lot of discussion of the old questions: Are the Democrats or the Republicans crazier? Whose crazies are crazier than the other? Who has a larger crazy-person percentage? But I can tell you, that even at rock-bottom of the Bush years, no Democratic elected official ever talked about secession. If one had, I'd imagine Sean Hannity would have had something to say about that. Probably something about "left-wing extremism."


2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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