It’s a truism of American politics that all presidential candidates pander to the extremes to win a primary, then scramble to the center to win the general election. Democrats never seem more lefitst than when running against other Democrats; Republicans never more right-wing than when battling each other. But this strategic calculation always brings high potential for disaster. If primary-world is too extreme, too accepting or encouraging of radicalism, and too indifferent or hostile to any sort of ideological moderation, then its very possible the candidates will wind up irreversibly tainted by the time the general election rolls around.
Watching Monday’s GOP/Tea Party debate on CNN, and the NBC/POLITICO one last Wednesday, it’s looking like the Republicans are teetering very much on this point of no return, extremism wise. Though to be fair, blame rests as much with their supporters as anyone else.
During the Wednesday debate, spontaneous cheers broke out at the mere mention — mention — that Texas Governor Rick Perry had executed 234 death-row inmates, a number which, as moderator Brian Williams put it, was “more than any other governor in modern times.” Perry seemed quite unfazed, even when Williams proceeded to give the Governor a moment to react to the applause, which had clearly unsettled the host far more than any of the men on stage.
A similarly chilling moment of spontaneity occurred on Monday, during a question for everyone’s favorite candidate, Ron Paul. Following a rather gauche theoretical by Wolf Blitzer (reminiscent of the famous “but there’s too much blood on the knob!” debate scene from The Simpsons), Dr. Paul was asked if someone who has no health insurance should simply be left to die if he cannot afford the consequences of his own irresponsibility. “YEAH!” shouted several people from the crowd. Paul held firm on his position that it wasn’t the government’s problem.
And then there was Michelle Bachmann. Once again, she tore a strip off Governor Perry for a decision he made back in 2007, when he approved mandatory anti-cervical cancer vaccinations for Texas schoolchildren. How can you possibly support giving “innocent little girls” “government injections,” she said sharply, to much applause. Perry lamely attempted to defend himself, saying that, basically, cancer was bad and he was against it, but then Bachmann jumped back in, bemoaning “all the little girls and parents that didn’t have a choice,” amid more hooting.
Initially, it seemed Bachmann’s objection to this particular injection was born from a particularly vindictive sort of religious moralizing (since cervical cancer can be transmitted sexually, some have argued inoculating against it merely endorses risk-free promiscuity). But no, as she hinted in the debate, and later elaborated in subsequent interviews, it seems Bachmann is a true believer in the larger anti-vaccination pseudoscience movement that argues vaccinations cause brain defects like Autism and — in her words — “mental retardation.” There’s absolutely no scientific evidence to corroborate this kind of conspiracy theorizing, but it does seem to slot in nicely with the larger hysterically anti-government worldview Bachmann is fond of peddling.
What offended me more than the deliberate callousness of these leading Republicans was their stoic refusal to call each other — or their supporters — out on it. It really highlighted a troubling trend about today’s conservatives: while they’ll happily leap all over each other at the first sign of ideological impurity or deviation, no one seems much interested in criticizing their competitors (or followers) for their rudeness, meanness, stupidity, or general inappropriateness. It wouldn’t have taken much for Ron Paul or Rick Perry to scold the bloodthirsty audience, to say something like “these are important issues, but we should never, ever treat the death of other human beings as something trivial, joyous, or funny.”
If anything defines the Tea Party it may be this rejection of poise in favor of crass ideology. It’s a movement that was spawned yelling people down in town halls, and now expects every public forum to be similarly “interactive.” So long as the right rhetorical lines are being said, it matters not how they are spoken; how undignified, how mean-spirited, how bound-up in hatred and ignorance. The ends will always justify the meanness — assuming anyone still believes petty meanness is something that even needs to be justified.
In this respect, the Tea Party and the modern Republicans who pander to it, are not really about conservatism at all, since there’s nothing conservative about embodying the worst traits of the violent, loud, disrespectful, vulgar culture that is already cheapening every aspect of American life, from families to Hollywood to driving. Indeed, one of the main things that historically separated conservatism from blind right-wing demagoguery was a certain degree of restraint, dignity, and tact; a willingness to moderate one’s political agenda and language in a way that was not overly disruptive to that which had made our civilization worth conserving in the first place.
And that same dignity, the dignity of someone like John McCain, Bob Dole, or Ronald Reagan, used to be understood as one of the conservative movement’s greatest assets, something that could soften the appeal of the right and win over centrists and independents who would otherwise be suspicious of the party’s aims and objectives.
Surely conservatives can appreciate that the decline of this tradition is at least one death not worth cheering.