WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, A NATION TURNS ITS LONELY EYES TO YOU…. There’s an ongoing and worthwhile effort underway to understand exactly how and why the conservative movement appears to have gone berserk. Some have argued there’s a racial/demographic shift underway, while others point, more persuasively, to the cyclical nature of far-right hysteria.

But Adam Serwer wrote an item this week that resonated with me, pointing to a Sean Wilentz piece about “an unprecedented mainstreaming of once fringe far-right ideas,” which Wilentz blames on a lack of “forthright leadership.”

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy deplored the far right’s “counsels of fear and suspicion.” Today, Obama’s White House is still struggling to make sense of its enemies. In the absence of forthright leadership, on both the right and the left, the job of standing up to extremists appears to have been left to the electorate.

Candidates like O’Donnell may prove too eccentric to prevail, or voters may simply become disillusioned by politicians who campaign on their hatred of government. After the election, mainstream conservatives may well engage in what Richard Viguerie has forecast as “a massive, almost historic battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.” (Already, Rove and some leading Bush political operatives, including the former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, have been quietly supplanting the battered G.O.P. establishment in the effort to raise funds for this year’s candidates.) But, according to a recent poll, more than seventy percent of Republicans support the Tea Party, and it seems almost certain that a Republican Party that has unstintingly appeased the far right will enjoy a strong and perhaps smashing victory in the coming midterm elections.

It didn’t used to be this way. William F. Buckley* once famously took on the John Birch Society and made them unwelcome in the Republican Party of the era. In 2010, Buckley has passed, and it’s no longer unusual for GOP officials and their party platforms to echo the same fringe ideas Birchers and their ilk have been pushing for years.

As Adam explained, “the right currently lacks a Buckley-like figure who could beat back the fringe while maintaining his conservative credibility…. Countering the conspiracy-minded right was a job for the kind of ideological ombudsman the modern right just doesn’t have. ”

Agreed. He was writing about a very different point, but Ezra Klein noted the other day, “This isn’t a very popular statement, but there is a role for elites in public life. Just like I want knowledgeable CEOs running companies and knowledgeable doctors performing surgeries, I want knowledgeable legislators crafting public policy. That’s why we have a representative democracy, rather than some form of government-by-referendum. But of late, the elites in the Republican Party are abdicating their roles, preferring to pander.”

To be crude about it, there’s just no one left on the right to tell their brethren, “Um, guys? You’ve gone stark raving mad.” To varying degrees, David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, Brink Lindsey, and Will Wilkinson have all tried — and were all quickly punished for their efforts.

The media won’t do it; Democrats don’t seem able to do it; and the electorate seems unwilling to do it. Indeed, voters appear to poised to do the exact opposite, rewarding extremism instead of punishing it. In the wake of Bush/Cheney, there was a leadership vacuum, but the country is yet to come to terms with the fact that it was filled by radicals.

The result, as Wilentz explained with painful precision, is that “the extreme right wing is on the verge of securing a degree of power over Congress and the Republican Party that is unprecedented in modern American history.”

* Postscript: This is not to characterize Buckley as some kind of moderate. He was, after all, a staunch critic of the civil rights movement, an apologist for Jim Crow, and a supporter of segregation. My point here, though, is that when it came to fringe hysterics and wild-eyed conspiracy theories, Buckley played the role of a voice of reason. As the conservative movement descends further into madness, there is no comparable voice now.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.