Running Wild in the States

Every progressive blogger knows that if you are stuck finding material to feed the hungry maw, you can always troll around advocacy sites or regional newspapers and come up a story of some conservative state legislator doing or saying something absolutely crazy.

Yesterday it was Oklahoma state senator Ralph Shortey, who introduced legislation to ban the marketing of food containing aborted human fetal matter. Today it’s Tennessee state senator Stacy Campfield, an unusually uninhibited homophobe who has made opposition to anti-bullying initiatives his main purpose in public life. There are entire areas of state legislative activity scattered across the country that are based on hallucinatory threats, most notably the struggle against the imminent imposition of Shariah Law.

It’s easy to make fun of this stuff, and also easy to exaggerate its importance. But craziness does indeed come in waves. It’s no accident that not one but two extremist loners in Congress, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, were able to launch credible presidential campaigns this year. And it should be clear by now that the Class of 2010 is already rivalling the Class of 1994 as a cohort of state lawmakers drawn to an unusual degree from people with views previously considered outside the mainstream. Worse yet, these new solons were immediately thrown into a redistricting cycle that will enable many of them to draw themselves more favorable districts and stick around longer than you might have originally imagined.

So to keep it all in perspective, it’s helpful to develop the knack of distinguising the isolated cranks from the broader trends that make their crankiness relevant as something other than entertainment material. Once this election cycle is over and a least a few extremist legislators are either purged by their embarassed colleagues or repudiated by the buyer’s remorse of constituents–and keeping in mind that presidential election years elicit an electorate that is inherently less hospitable to right-wing candidates–it will be interesting and valuable to see how much of the craziness has endured to become part of the political landscape.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.