Why Is Andrew Gelman Upset? (Academic Maturity of Mind and Inner Sovereignty Department)
links for 2009-08-16

Today's Must-Read: Rick Perlstein on the Republican Crazy Tree

Rich Perlstein:

Birthers, Health Care Hecklers and the Rise of Right-Wing Rage: In Pennsylvania last week, a citizen, burly, crew-cut and trembling with rage, went nose to nose with his baffled senator: "One day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you...." He was accusing Arlen Specter of being too kind to President Obama's proposals to make it easier for people to get health insurance. In Michigan, meanwhile, the indelible image was of the father who wheeled his handicapped adult son up to Rep. John Dingell and bellowed that "under the Obama health-care plan, which you support, this man would be given no care whatsoever." He pressed his case further on Fox News. In New Hampshire, outside a building where Obama spoke, cameras trained on the pistol strapped to the leg of libertarian William Kostric. He then explained on CNN why the "tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of tyrants and patriots."...

[SA] BBC reporter... trying to make sense of it all. He quoted a spokesman for the conservative Americans for Tax Reform... arguing... that it was spontaneous, yet he also proudly owned up to how his group has helped the orchestration, through sample letters to the editor and "a little bit of an ability to put one-pagers together."... [T]he birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers -- these are "either" the genuine grass roots or evil conspirators staging scenes for YouTube? The quiver on the lips of the man pushing the wheelchair, the crazed risk of carrying a pistol around a president -- too heartfelt to be an act. The lockstep strangeness of the mad lies on the protesters' signs--too uniform to be spontaneous. They are both.... [In] America... the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

In the early 1950s, Republicans referred to the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as "20 years of treason" and accused the men who led the fight against fascism of deliberately surrendering the free world to communism. Mainline Protestants published a new translation of the Bible in the 1950s that properly rendered the Greek... right-wingers attributed that to, yes, the hand of Soviet agents. And Vice President Richard Nixon claimed that the new Republicans arriving in the White House "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America." When John F. Kennedy entered the White House, his proposals to anchor America's nuclear defense in intercontinental ballistic missiles... and form closer ties with... Yugoslavia were taken as evidence that the young president was secretly disarming the United States.... National Indignation Convention in Dallas... keynote speaker... remarked as the audience roared: "Tom Anderson here has turned moderate! All he wants to do is impeach [Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl] Warren. I'm for hanging him!" Before the "black helicopters" of the 1990s, there were right-wingers claiming access to secret documents from the 1920s proving that the entire concept of a "civil rights movement" had been hatched in the Soviet Union; when the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act was introduced, one frequently read in the South that it would "enslave" whites....

The instigation is always the familiar litany: expansion of the commonweal to empower new communities, accommodation to internationalism, the heightened influence of cosmopolitans and the persecution complex of conservatives who can't stand losing an argument. My personal favorite? The federal government expanded mental health services in the Kennedy era.... One of the most widely listened-to right-wing radio programs in the country... had millions of Americans believing it was being built to intern political dissidents.... So, crazier then, or crazier now?...

[V]ultures such as Richard Nixon, who... had his aides make sure that seed blossomed for his own purposes. "To the Editor... Who in the hell elected these people to stand up and read off their insults to the President of the United States?" read one proposed "grass-roots" letter manufactured by the White House. "When will you people realize that he was elected President and he is entitled to the respect of that office no matter what you people think of him?" went another.... [T]he tactic represented by those fake Nixon letters was a long-term success. Conservatives have become adept at playing the media for suckers....

If 1963 were 2009, the woman who assaulted Adlai Stevenson would be getting time on cable news to explain herself. That, not the paranoia itself, makes our present moment uniquely disturbing. It used to be different. You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to "debunk" claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president's program...

I suspect that Rick is wrong: that our media today is no worse than it was a generation ago. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite then are not the equivalent of Fox and CNN today--and the equivalents of Fox and CNN then were eager and anxious to print the lies of Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon as fast and often as possible.

We complain now about the High Broderism and the craven incompetence of the Washington Post. But is there anything to match Walter Lippman in October 1968?

I believe that there really is a "new Nixon," a maturer and mellower man who is no longer clawing is wayto the top, and it is, I think, fair to hope that his dominating ambition will be to become a two-term President. He is bright enough to know that this will be impossible if he remains sunk in the Vietnam quagmire. Ending the war is indispensable if he is to become a successful President..."

I suspect not.

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