The Limits of Sweet Reason

Yesterday Ryan commented on the oddly anachronistic New York Times op-ed by Steve Almond advancing the tired idea that if liberals would ignore wingnuts they’d go away and we’d rediscover our own positive agenda via civil discussion with reasonble conservatives.

Ryan’s point of emphasis was that ignoring The Crazy had never done any good, while fighting it actually has. I agree, but want to make a different and more fundamental point: we really are getting down to points of disagreement between the nation’s two major political parties and two prevailing political ideologies that can’t be reduced to matters of taste, emphasis, background or calculation. I just wrote scathingly about a column on reproductive rights by Ross Douthat. Unlike, I suspect, some readers, I don’t think Ross is stupid or crazy. I’ve met him, been on a panel with him, and on some limited topics, I can talk with him reasonably with the possibility of his or my own mind changing. But Ross believes pretty strongly that legalized abortion is a moral horror of the highest order. I think returning to the days when abortion was illegal would be a moral horror of the highest order. If he and I were somehow placed in charge of setting abortion policy for America (and I bridle at the very idea of any man being so empowered), we could compromise, I suppose, but the battle between his idea that I’m more or less a “good German” in the service of unmitigaged evil and my idea that he’s confusing the way things used to be with God’s Will would not go away. Eventually, he’d try to deny me any power over this subject, and I’d do the same. It’s what Seward called an “irrepressible conflict,” and like it or not, our politics are presently loaded with such conflicts.

To put it another way: Paul Ryan is not as crude as Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, or as hammer-headed as Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly. But he has a moral and social vision of the country’s future that I find deeply and fundamentally offensive. And best as I can tell, the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, whatever he actually believes deep down in his soul, has outsourced the most basic domestic policies of the administration he hopes to lead to Paul Ryan, and to people like Jim DeMint who reminds me in every utterance of everything about my home region I had hoped and prayed we had overcome a long, long time ago. And here’s one more example: yes, I find Sarah Palin’s style of politics maddening, her whole belligerent-martyr shtick and her fact-free treatment of issues pathological and dangerous. But much as it freaks me out that she is capable of breezily making up an outrageous lie like the “death panels” smear about ObamaCare and casually disseminating it via Facebook, it freaks me out even more that it’s become gospel truth to millions and millions of Americans and thousands of Republican politicians, because it accords with their general understanding of what universal health coverage involves.

I spend as much time as anyone deploring The Crazy, but I try to show why it’s relevant to actual politics and actual governing decisions. Sure, it’s fun to make sport of the Cult of Breitbart, but it’s a deadly serious fact that Breitbart is rapidly being mainstreamed by highly respectable conservatives, more every day.

If liberals could truly make wingnuttery go away, I’d be all for it, even though it would make my own job a lot harder. But every time I try to wake up from the weird distorted images of politics presented by what Almond calls “conservative wack jobs” and soberly consider the options facing voters this very November, there they are again in the eyes of Mitt Romney or the voice of Eric Cantor or the budget of Paul Ryan–perhaps less “crazy,” but a poor reflection nonetheless of what I hope to be our country’s values and future.

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.