Stop Scapegoating the "Extremists"

The establishment is a much bigger problem.


Earlier this week David Welch, a former research director for the Republican National Committee, had an op-ed in The New York Times that looked back with nostalgia to the days when William Buckley purportedly purged the John Birch Society from the conservative movement (*). Welch declared that the "modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party" and called on a new "Buckley-esque gatekeeper" to expel Tea Partiers from polite society. To do this, he added, "We need 'the Establishment.' We need officials like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, operatives like Karl Rove and Republican Party institutions." There's more, but if you've read any of the other seven trillion articles (**) making the same basic argument you know pretty much everything Welch has to say.

Conor Friedersdorf, no apologist for the Tea Partiers, responds ably in The Atlantic:

None Dare Call It Scapegoating

[T]he notion that the Tea Party is responsible for the right's woes is perilously wrongheaded, for it ignores the ruinous role the GOP establishment has played in recent years….

The GOP establishment made George W. Bush's nomination a fait accompli in the runnup to the 2000 primaries. The Bush Administration's ruinous foreign policy was presided over by longtime members of the GOP establishment. In Congress, it was establishment Republicans who pushed the Iraq War, gave us the K Street project, and signed off on a fiscal course that combined two costly wars, the budget busting Medicare Part D, and tax cuts paid for with borrowed money. The Tea Party arose in part as a response to some of those failures, along with the giveaway of taxpayer money to many of the people most culpable for causing the financial crisis….

There's an unhealthy habit in American politics to lay blame on perceived or actual "extremists"—libertarians and Randians are attacked today in sorta the same way anti-war protesters and "the angry left" were attacked during the Bush Administration—even though they've literally never wielded power. Meanwhile, moderates and centrists brought us the policies responsible for the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the financial crisis, every giveaway to lobbyists ever passed, and most recently a multi-country spree of extrajudicial assassinations carried out in secret with hundreds of civilian casualties. It's lucky for the centrists and moderates that they have oh so frightening "extremists" to distract us from their sometimes criminal misgovernance.

One problem with the Tea Party movement, Friedersdorf notes, is that "many of its members are too slavishly loyal in their partisan attachments." In other words, the party regulars have too much influence over their activism. That suggests that Welch has it exactly backwards: We'd be better off if the gatekeepers had less power, not more.

* A decade after the alleged excommunication of the Birchers, a third-party presidential candidate running on a basically Birchite platform got over a million votes. That's a lot of conservatives who don't take their marching orders from Bill Buckley.

** This is an exaggeration, of course. The actual number of articles making this argument is 4.2 trillion.