Still, I have to object to Paul Krugman's op-ed on "The Big Hate." There are two passages that I find especially objectionable.
Today, as in the early years of the Clinton administration but to an even greater extent, right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.and
And at this point, whatever dividing line there was between mainstream conservatism and the black-helicopter crowd seems to have been virtually erased.Starting with the second passage first, Krugman just doesn't seem to recognize the extent to which the distinction between "mainstream conservativism" and the "black-helicopter crowd" began to blur during the Bush years. Conservatives all over the country moved out of "liberal neighborhoods" and towns (See Bill Bishop, The Big Sort) In Bible-belt areas like Eastern Kentucky, conservatives have been taking their kids out of public schools and withdrawing into all-encompassing mega-church environments. Likewise, rural gun owners just assumed that any Democratic president would be "coming to take their guns." That's why the first reaction to Obama's election was a run on guns and ammunition at local gun shops. The same is the case with Muslim rumors about Obama. Nobody in the popular right needed The Washington Times to tell them Obama was a Muslim. It was all over conservative list serves well before the election. The same is the case with the stuff about liberal economic policies being socialism or Marxism. Mainstream popular conservatism has been moving toward the fringes for years.
In my opinion, conservatism is evolving rapidly in a rightward direction even as it is shrinking as a popular phenomenon. Right now, Rush Limbaugh represents the middle of the conservative spectrum with country-club Republicans and what Krugman would call "mainstream conservatives" on his left with a "near fringe" of really small government zealots, survivalists, Ann-Randians, and neo-Confederates on Limbaugh's right and then a farther fringe of secessionists, survivalists, neo-Nazis, and other wackos daydreaming about living in their cellars, making citizens arrests of Fed officials, and the like.
Yes, in the conservative universe, Rush Limbaugh is a relatively moderate figure. I would view Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly as either in the same spot as Limbaugh or somewhat to his left. For his part, Glenn Beck would be a couple of ticks to the right because of his flirting with integrating far fringe black helicopter themes into the Limbaugh mainstream.
All of these figures are revolting to progressives and I'm just as revolted as Paul Krugman. I can't say how many times I've referred to "Limbaugh mainstream conservatives" as "repulsive" and repugnant and I think they're also becoming such to the country as a whole.
However, I also think it's important to view the problem from their point of view as we attempt to sort out what is happening with the Rich Poplawski, George Tiller, and Holocaust Museum murders.
I believe the conservative view goes like this. Given that "conservatism" is moving farther to the right. the big names in the conservative media establishment are going to have to move farther right if they want to continue to appeal to what they (rather than Paul Krugman) see as the "conservative mainstream." Sarah Palin is enormously popular with the conservative base because conservatives view her as speaking to their increasingly fringe views. Glenn Beck's experiments with conspiratorial themes like "Obama re-education camps" get a response because Becks's audience already agrees with those conspiratorial themes. The increasing "extremism" of people like Beck is driven more by audience demand than it is by the "conservative media and political establishment."
For people who don't believe this, stop and think of the last time you heard something from Ann Coulter. Like O'Reilly, Hannity and some others, Ann Coulter is sticking with her old schtick rather than going along with the "far fringe themes" of Glenn Beck. And that's made her less prominent on the right as a result.
My suspicion is that Krugman doesn't get out of the BosWash urban belt often enough to fully understand that. Who can blame him? Who in the progressive movement really wants to spend a lot of quality time with people to the right of Rush Limbaugh. I know I don't. I feel a hell of a lot more at home in Philly than I do in Eastern Kentucky.
But the various fringes of the American right are out there and we need to think more about them if we're going to remain a "reality-based" political constituency.
What are the dangers in the current situation with conservatives? The first danger we see is far fringe people like James von Brunn, Scott Roeder, and Rich Poplawski launching suicide attacks at their various hate targers. These are horrifying events, a number of worthy people are dead, and it's tempting for progressives like Krugman to blame conservative media and political people because of their prominence and because conservative media and political figures are the furthest people on the right that most progressives know. But it's just highly unlikely that von Brunn, Roeder, and Poplawski were stimulated by anything in the mainstream conservative media. They were all versed in far fringe discourses much farther to the right than Limbaugh and launched their attacks out of "martyrdom" motivations more familiar to Osama bin Laden than Bill O'Reilly.
But Fox does come into play with the second danger. That's the danger of the increasingly right-wing "base" of the Republican Party drifting out to the far fringe and becoming real dangers. Right after Obama won the election, I heard a lot of stories from my students about racist guys in Eastern Kentucky gloating over the prospect of Obama's assassination or bragging that they'd "do it themselves" if nobody else did. What about is the possibility of those guys and the most committed anti-abortion activists, anti-tax zealots, Christianists, and others moving out to a "farther fringe" in which they adopt insurrectionist views and become a threat. There's a good chunk of the Republican Party there--maybe 25-33%. If such a large section of the American public switches from the "near fringe" extreme to the "far fringe extreme," we would move from the relatively frequent political assassinations we have now to real political instability.
That's a problem worth avoiding.
So the question then is whether Limbaugh, Fox, Sarah Palin, and other conservative media and political figures are guilty of contributing to a destructive shift of conservativism toward the far fringes of neo-Nazism, survivalism, and secession.
The answer here has to be a resounding NO! The conservative media establishment isn't doing any favors to the Republican Party by doing this, but they (probably unintentionally) are doing the whole country a favor by providing a "mainstream" conservative anchor that functions to slow down, mitigate, and render the conservative rightward drift less dangerous. Because Limbaugh, Hannity, Palin, Huckabee, and other conservative media and political figures are powerful forces, they tend to keep attention of everybody riveted on "mainstream conservatism" and keep large numbers of people from being more attracted to the far fringes.
Conservative media figures aren't quite sitting on dynamite, but they are sitting on an audience that could become dynamite under the right conditions. Krugman seems to want the conservative media to be "more careful" about their right-wing advocacy and their criticisms of Obama. To the contrary, I think the conservative media would make a real contribution by giving more attention to "far fringe" ideas and why they disagree with them. In this sense, I think the conservtive media should engage in a kind of triangulation in which they disagree the fringe right types on the right at the same time that they continue to focus most of their fire on the Obama administration and progressives like Krugman. In my opinion, airing out all of the conspiracy theories and providing them with a hearing in comparison to other views is a better approach than either maintaining silence or just condemning them as the work of "wackos."
Open political communication has been a liberal ideal since the attempts of lynch mobs to suppress the abolitionist movement in the 1830's. That counts for conservative ideas as well. In my opinion, the conservative media serves as a stabilizing force in the rightward drifting conservative movement. They should be encouraged to continue doing so.