If You Go Carrying Pictures of Dachau, You Ain't Gonna Make It With Anyone Anyhow


Last week Daily Kos editor Markos Moulitsas told readers that he was "putting the finishing touches on my new book, American Taliban, which catalogues the ways in which modern-day conservatives share the same agenda as radical Jihadists in the Islamic  world." But the liberal Dinish D'Souza (whose sinister claims about the left's "responsibility" for 9/11 are summarized and rebutted here by George Mason law professor Peter Berkowitz) found himself "making certain claims about Republicans that I didn't know if they could be backed up." Working backwards, Moulitsas set out to prove, via a Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll, that self-identified Republicans have much in common with the makeup-wearing, women-beating acolytes of Mullah Omar.

The poll's results obviously do not confirm Moulitsas's rather extreme judgment of rank-and-file Republicans, but are nevertheless alarming. After a quick read of the questions and methodology (areas in which I possess no expertise), I was skeptical. Andrew Therriault, a doctoral candidate at New York University, raises a number of smart objections to the survey here, though this paragraph mirrors my initial reaction:

Every opinion question is binary (yes/no, favor/oppose, etc.) with an option for "not sure". Looking at the percentage of "not sure" responses, almost every question has double-digits in this category, and many have 20-30% or more. This is a much greater incidence than for most survey questions (though data is scarce when it comes to questions comparable to these in tone), and suggests that there is a wide range when it comes to the strength and certainty of respondents' opinions. So of the 63% who think Obama is a socialist, for example, it's unlikely that all of those respondents think he's the reincarnation of V.I. Lenin. More likely, a handful really believe that, some more think he's socialist in the European, democratic-socialist sense, others have heard their friends say it and think it might be true, a few more don't really know but are guessing (not wanting to admit to the interviewer that they don't know), and a bunch have no idea what a socialist is in the first place but know that it's evil and so Obama must be one. By only allowing for binary answers, this poll ignores the complexities and uncertainties of public opinion, and force responses into categories which sound much more extreme than they might otherwise be.

NYU professor Joshua Tucker is also skeptical, and raises an interesting point about how Republicans included in the sample were screened:

If we assume that extreme 5% of voters on either the left or the right have some pretty crazy ideas, then this alone can play a big role in coloring how "crazy" a given sample of Republicans (or Democrats) looks in a poll. To give a simple example, if somehow we restrict the Republican in our sample to only the farthest right 10% of voters (e.g., "strong" republicans) , then 50% of our sample of Republicans will look crazy, just on the basis of the 5% of crazies we've assumed to be out there. However, if we include as Republicans the farthest right 40% of voters (e.g., include strong Republicans, weak Republicans, and Republican leaners), then the 5% of crazies end up only making 12.5% of all Republicans look crazy. So by stopping at the initial probe of "Politically, do you consider yourself to be a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, or of another party?" and not asking any follow up questions, the poll was setting itself up to probably get a more conservative sample of Republicans than if it followed the practice of, for example, the American National Election Study, and followed that question up by asking "Do you think of yourself as closer to the Republican Party or to the Democratic Party?"

Hole after hole can be poked in the Kos survey, but regardless there is, in some quarters, an emerging theme that right-wing extremism has gone mainstream. Today on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Kurt Andersen, Joe Scarborough, and John Heileman denounced the "poison," the "mob," the "freakshow" that is the Tea Party movement, and urged the masses to return to the political center. Andersen opined that "Fox News and the blogsphere" (what, no MSNBC?) are whipping the great unwashed and uneducated masses into an extremist frenzy. It is, one presumes, the responsibility of Andersen and the staff of New York magazine to guide these proto-fascists back to semi-responsible politics…by calling them freaks.

But there is a nugget of truth in the Tea Party denunciations. I have previously written of my experience at the big September 12 Tea Party confab in D.C., where I met a handful of nutters and a whole lot of reasonable folks worried about ever-expanding deficits. But the leadership of last week's Tea Party convention in Nashville, for instance, thought it wise to invite Joseph Farah, the lunatic editor of the lunatic website WorldNetDaily, who received a hearty ovation for denying that President Obama was an American citizen. Nor did they blache at schedualing a morning seminar entitled "Correlations between the current Administration and Marxist Dictators of Latin America." Between such madness, a pastor named Rick Scarbourgh, author of a delightful little volume called Liberalism Kills Kids, led the assembled in prayer. And of course, nativist conservative Tom Tancredo wondered whether Obama voters could speak English or "even spell the word vote."

Tip to the Tea Party conventioneers: If you don't want the "mainstream media" to mock you, stop making it so damn easy. Because if you go carrying pictures of Dachau, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.