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A primer on political reality

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, February 19, 2010

The left has a political interest in defining the broad backlash against expanded government as identical to the worst elements of the Tea Party movement -- birthers and Birchers, militias and nativists, racists and conspiracy theorists, acolytes of Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo and Lyndon LaRouche.

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This characterization fits a predisposition of some on the left to dismiss many of their fellow citizens as dangerous rubes. It does not fit the 60 percent of New Jersey independents, the 66 percent of Virginia independents and the 73 percent of Massachusetts independents who voted for Republicans in recent elections. It does not fit Palinism, which, in spite of populist excesses, usually swims in the conservative mainstream. It does not even fit the polling of Tea Party activists and sympathizers, who report a fairly typical range of conservative views. The Tea Party movement, on the whole, seems to be an intensification of conservative activism, not the triumph of the paranoid style of politics.

But the birthers and Birchers, militias and nativists, racists and conspiracy theorists do exist. Some, having waited decades in deserved obscurity, hope to ride a populist movement like remoras. But there are others, new to political engagement, who have found paranoia and anger intoxicating. They watch Glenn Beck rail against the omnipresent threat of Saul Alinsky, read Ayn Rand's elevation of egotism and contempt for the weak, listen to Ron Paul attacking the Federal Reserve cabal, and suddenly their resentments become ordered into a theory. Such theories, in politics, can act like a drug, causing addiction, euphoria and psychedelic departures from reality.

At any time of social disorientation, conspiracy theories have an appeal. They provide a narrative for an apparently random world. They promise that one key can unlock every door.

And these theories contribute to social division. Opponents are not just wrong; they are secretive, ruthless and demonic. They want to overturn the Constitution, establish a police state, cede American sovereignty to a new world order, fight wars for the sake of Israel, carve out a nation of Aztlan in the American Southwest.

The argument of "us against them" is a temptation across the ideological spectrum. But it is intensified by Gnostic insights that pit the children of light against the children of darkness.

Eventually, these theories require repudiation or else they can taint a political movement -- like a little red dye turns a container of water pink. This is precisely what William F. Buckley did in the 1950s and '60s, repudiating Rand and Robert Welch of the John Birch Society, thereby creating a legitimate conservatism that could elect candidates such as Ronald Reagan.

A similar effort will be required today of conservative political and intellectual leaders. It will not be easy. Sometimes it takes courage to stand before a large crowd and proclaim that two plus two equals four.

A short primer in political reality should cover several topics. The "revolution" we are seeing is a metaphor. This is not 1776, in which the avenues of representation were blocked by a distant power. Those who take the revolutionary metaphor too literally are not engaged in politics, they are engaged in sedition. The Obama administration proposes to expand government; it is not preparing to overthrow the government. At this point, it does not even seem competent enough to engage in conspiracy. The Federal Reserve, by the way, just helped to prevent a depression by increasing the money supply. It deserves a little thanks.

The reform of Social Security and Medicare is a fiscal necessity; the abolition of Social Security and Medicare would be an act of cruelty. Immigrants are not a bacillus; they are a source of values and vitality. And if they are not a source of future Republican votes, conservatives will be voted into obscurity.

Every political movement is threatened by the impatient and irresponsible. William Lloyd Garrison called for the secession of the North to avoid the contaminating evil of slavery, while Lincoln worked to preserve the union. Malcolm X initially found the American tradition fundamentally corrupt, while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. found vast resources of reform within that tradition. The heroes of America are heroes of unity.

Our political system is designed for vigorous disagreement. It is not designed for irreconcilable contempt. Such contempt loosens the ties of citizenship and undermines the idea of patriotism. "How can we love our country," asked Ronald Reagan, "and not love our countrymen?"

mgerson@globalengage.org


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