The liberal historian Rick Perlstein published an op-ed in the Sunday Washington Post about the roots of "the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers." In America, Perlstein argues, "the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and…elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests."
In one way, the article is refreshing: At a time when many liberals have been describing the protests at the health care "town halls" as an unprecedented event, even as a sign of incipient fascism, Perlstein reminds readers that flare-ups like this actually happen fairly frequently in American history. But the article is aggravating, too, and not just because it casually conflates the bona fide kooks with anyone who happens to protest at a tea party or a town hall. Reading the piece you get the impression that the crazy tree grows only on the right, and that the health care battle is a simple case of hysterics attacking enlightened reform.
The first law of the crazy tree is that it's always blooming somewhere. It will always be easy to believe the worst about your political foes, and there will always be people willing to accuse them of conspiracy. This does not only happen at what appear to be moments of liberal ascendancy, and it doesn't only happen on the right. (One of Perlstein's own historical examples—the anti-Catholic nativists of the 19th century, one of the less attractive products of the antebellum reform era—isn't easily identified with either the modern right or the modern left.)
The second law of the crazy tree is that lots of people try to exploit it. Consider the narratives we're hearing not just from the health care protestors but about the health care protestors, so frequently derided as either lunatics or pawns. It serves several political interests—some of them "elite"!—to paint the opponents of the Democrats' health care changes as a bunch of knuckle-dragging birthers and/or as fakers in FreedomWorks' employ. Once you've defined your opponents as the Other, you have an excuse to ignore their concerns.
The third law of the crazy tree: It has a life of its own. No matter who tries to exploit it, it can easily escape their control. We live in a world where the crank legal theories of the "sovereign citizen" movement, often associated with the racist right, have managed to attract a following in the black underclass, where the ideas were adapted to new ends. I don't know who'll be talking about "death panels" five years from now, but it's easy to imagine many ways the meme might evolve.
The fourth law of the crazy tree: It isn't completely crazy. I don't merely mean that there are conspiracy theories out there that turn out to be true. I mean that the true and the false keep lapping up against each other. Even real conspiracies (say, Watergate or Iran-contra) invariably produce dubious ancillary hypotheses; even the most absurd conspiracy folklore can be a metaphoric way of discussing something real. This is important, because it suggests that a palpably false belief could still deserve our attention.
And that leads us to the fifth, final, and most important law of the crazy tree: It blooms in the center, too. You can't protect yourself from its effects by quarantining the fringes, though Perlstein seems to suggest you can:
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, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn't adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of "conservative claims" to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as "extremist"—out of bounds.
While I share Perlstein's antipathy to the he-said/she-said style of reporting ("Is Gordon Brown an extraterrestrial? Tonight we bring you two views…") I have no nostalgia for the days when the center could write off civic outrage as "extremist" and keep it out of bounds entirely. That was the way the centrist consensus protected itself—not just against that bizarre (and partly Scientology-fueled) theory about concentration camps in Alaska, but against legitimate criticisms of disastrous programs ranging from urban renewal to the Vietnam War. Such critics weren't just marginalized: They were demonized, in a process that itself resembles the paranoia that Perlstein is decrying.
That process is alive today, even if the media landscape has changed. When defenders of the Democratic health care plans can't make their case without constantly linking their opponents to birthers and fascists, something far more disturbing than heckling is at work.