Wake up, commentators. The most dangerous group of “right-wing extremists” today is not the grass-roots tea party. It is the financial and ideological leaders in the Republican coalition who have embraced the extremist philosophy of “politics as warfare.” | Democratic Strategist
Writers and commentators who, in private, will cheerfully concede that, of course, the crisis is fundamentally the fault of Republican intransigence will then fall back on “both sides are equally to blame” clichés in their public writing — not only to avoid charges of liberal bias but also to portray themselves as impartial and intellectually superior observers of all career politicians.
There is, unfortunately, one major problem with this “elites as pragmatic, fringe as extreme” view: it is deeply, profoundly and fundamentally wrong. The most dangerous group of political extremists today is not the grass roots supporters of the Tea Party. It is the major sector of the Republican financial and ideological elite who have embraced the philosophy of “politics as warfare.”
To see why this is so, it is necessary to very clearly distinguish between two entirely distinct meanings of the term “extremism.” On the one hand, it is possible for a person or political party to hold a wide variety of very “extreme” opinions on issues. These views may be crackpot (e.g. “abolish paper money) or repugnant (“deny non-insured children medical care”). But as long as the individual or political party that holds these views conducts itself within the norms and rules of a democratic society, this, in itself, does not lead such groups or individuals to be described as “political extremists” by the media or society in general.
Libertarians and the Libertarian Party offer the best illustration. Vast numbers of Americans consider many libertarian views “extreme.” But, because the libertarians conduct themselves within the norms and rules of a democratic society, they are virtually never described by the media as “political extremists.”
The alternative definition of the term “political extremists” refers to political parties or individuals who do not accept the norms, rules and constraints of democratic society. They embrace a view of “politics as warfare” and of political opponents as literal “enemies” who must be crushed. Extremist political parties based on the politics as warfare philosophy emerged on both the political left and right at various times in the 20th century in many different countries and circumstances.
Despite their ideological diversity, extremist political parties share a large number of common characteristics, one critical trait being a radically different conception of the role and purpose of the political party itself in a democratic society.
In the politics as warfare perspective a political party’s objective is defined as the conquest and seizure of power and not sincere collaboration in democratic governance. The party is viewed as a combat organization whose goal is to defeat an enemy, not a governing organization whose job is to faithfully represent the people who voted for it. Political debate and legislative maneuvering are seen not as the means to achieve ultimate compromise, but as forms of combat whose objective is total victory.
This basic conception of the role of political parties leads to the justification and use of two profoundly anti-democratic strategies.
First, in the politics as warfare perspective it is a legitimate strategy for a political party to paralyze the workings of government in order to prevent a democratically elected government of an opposing party from implementing the platform on which it was elected. In the politics as warfare perspective the extremist political party accepts no responsibility for stability–engineering the failure of the existing government is absolutely paramount and any negative consequences that may occur in the process represent a kind of “collateral damage” that must be accepted as inevitable in warfare.
Historically, the Republican Party never embraced this strategy at any time during the Democratic administrations of Truman, Kennedy or Carter. The strategy first made its appearance when Newt Gingrich engineered the shutdown of the government in 1994. After Obama’s election in 2008 the use of this “paralyze the government” tactic accelerated dramatically with the conversion of the filibuster into a minority veto of virtually all majority-sponsored legislation and a Republican bar to the huge numbers of judicial and administrative appointments.
Previous generations of Republicans would have been scandalized by the notion of crippling the administration of justice by leaving courts grotesquely understaffed in order to prevent the appointment of individuals who did not strictly adhere to conservative orthodoxy.
The most dramatic escalation of this approach, however, occurred after the elections of 2010 and was reflected in the rejection of the very substantial reduction in federal spending that Obama offered the Republican house majority. Observers concurred that the deal was far more favorable to conservatives in terms of policy than the deal Ronald Reagan accepted in 1986 on tax reform or that Newt Gingrich accepted on welfare reform in 1995. But public statements by Republican leaders indicated that the deal was rejected in substantial part on the explicitly political grounds that any legislative agreement that produced a “victory” for Obama was unacceptable. In effect, the political objective of weakening the president had actually become a higher priority than the achievement of the most fundamental long-sought conservative policy goals.
It is almost impossible for anyone who does not remember previous eras of American politics to realize how extraordinary this transformation actually is. It would have been literally inconceivable to the Republican senators and congressmen of the 1950s and 1960s.
The second, even more directly and profoundly anti-democratic strategy that directly flows from the politics as warfare philosophy is the calculated attempt to disenfranchise likely pro-Democratic voters.
There were no systematic Republican initiatives to disenfranchise voters during the Nixon, Reagan or Gingrich eras. But after the 2008 elections Fox News began promulgating the notion that massive voter fraud had occurred. Fox News featured a video of two members of the New Black Panthers at a single polling site more than 100 times on its national programs, asserting that they had intimidated voters in order to insure Obama’s election. Even after it was conclusively demonstrated that sworn eyewitness testimony had been intentionally falsified in order to fabricate this charge, Fox continued to air the accusations and to assert that they were the tip of the iceberg of similar incidents. In parallel, accusations were also made that massive numbers of fraudulent votes had been cast in the election.
The result of these charges was a widespread grass-roots effort by local tea party groups to police polling places and record incidents of intimidation and fraudulent voting during the 2010 elections — an effort that produced not a single documented case anywhere in the country. Nonetheless, there is now a major, nationally coordinated and massively funded effort to prevent pro-Democratic constituencies from casting their ballots.