Right versus Left Extremists

I like Michael Kinsley.  He’s liberal, but he writes well, and you see a perpetual thoughtfulness, a person sincerely trying to get it right.  So I end up disagreeing with much of what he concludes, but respecting the route he takes to his conclusions.

His recent column in Politico offers a close-up view of the Tucson tragedy, and veers off to a regrettable comparison of right-wing and left-wing extremists.

It seems — in fact, it seems obvious — that the situation is not balanced. Extremists on the right are more responsible for the poisonous ideological atmosphere than extremists on the left, whoever they may be. And extremists on the left have a lot less influence on nonextremists on the left than extremists on the right have on right-wing moderates. Sure, NPR, despite denials, tilts to the left. But not the way Fox News tilts toward the right. Rachel Maddow is no Glenn Beck.

I get how Kinsley got there — in this environment of Democrats controlling nearly all the organs of federal power in Washington DC.  But I profoundly disagree with his conclusion.

Ideologies out of power always sound harsher than ideologies in power.  Ideologies in power have the luxury of urging civility and restraint, while ideologies out of power wish most intensely to become the ideologies in power so that they have the luxury of urging civility and restraint.  In that narrow sense, Kinsley may be right, today, but he forgets the environment yesterday.  And I have seen this wishful forgetfulness among many on the left.

I believe the right was remarkably civilized in the face of Democratic party control, from 2008 through 2010, of every organ of federal power.  And the Democrats exercised that power most enthusiastically and successfully.  Indeed, few Americans really know how robustly the Democrats have changed the legislative and regulatory landscape of our nation.

I think that change is a net negative, but that’s not my point here.  I’m focused on Kinsley’s conclusion that extremists on the right are somehow more poisonous and have more mainstream influence.

The least attractive, least influential, most reviled sensibility in America is the extreme right.  And that is a credit to the evolution of our collective political sensibility because it has not always been so.  At its peak, Ku Klux Klan membership exceeded four million and comprised 20% of the adult white male population, commonly in Southern states, but historically more concentrated in Midwestern states.  Americans of good will fought back, and eventually the Klan was broken.  Conservatives today are very different than conservatives 50, 60 or 70 years ago.

As a people, thankfully, we do not hesitate to condemn racism or decry injustice when we see it.  But yes, we still have fringes, left and right, and we still have relatively mainstream people influenced by fringes.  The recent Tucson tragedy has reinvigorated a debate about the relative nastiness of our fringes.  At one level, arguing about the relative nastiness of our fringes is an enormous opportunity cost — how much more productive to discuss what we have in common among mainstream left and right Americans?

But the debate is nevertheless useful political discourse, hence my commendation to Kinsley, because it helps us to understand ourselves, our politics, and our history a little better — and these are all sorely needed understandings.

Kinsley concludes, simply because it “seems obvious,” that “extremists on the right are more responsible for the poisonous ideological atmosphere than extremists on the left.”  Similarly, many liberal commentators and citizen debaters responding to the Tucson tragedy have weighed in with excoriations of even the mainstream right — forever tarred in their imagination with excesses of right-wing extremism.  And most interestingly, many of these liberal commentators and citizen debaters insist that the left has never been so incendiary, at least not since the 1960s.

And that assumption warrants some recent history — very recent history — history that might hopefully cause all of us to hang our heads just a little and acknowledge, from the right and the left, that rightwing and leftwing rhetoric both get reckless, and it is our collective responsibility not only to keep the dialogue civil, but to stay vigilant about reckless rhetoric whenever we see it.

The left really hated George W. Bush.  Really hated.  Jonathan Chait, in The New Republic, opened an editorial with, “I hate President George W. Bush. There, I said it.”  (Chait, by the way, is one of the liberals who wrote honorably and with good will in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy.)  The mainstream left tried to make a rational case for hatred of George W. Bush.  A little further to the left, our point in this discussion of relative extremism, it was a different story.

Please watch this video, featuring leftists demonizing George Bush, and one leftist saying “we’ll have to come out and kill somebody I guess.”

No current leftist will avow the wackos in the video — but we’re talking about relative extremism, hoping merely to get leftists to acknowledge that they have wackos who speak with virulence, violence, and vileness.  Only if leftists acknowledge this do we get to a point of forging common mainstream ground and finding the political courage to speak with mutual respect.

And there’s this smorgasbord of Bush=Hitler comparisons.  So far, to my knowledge, no Republican member of Congress has compared Obama to Hitler.  A Democratic member of Congress did compare Bush to Hitler.

And here are comparative images from left and right rallies in March 2010 — after Democrats had taken over everything.

Now, here’s an image to shame us all, with a red bullet hole in the President’s head.

And some more images…  Noteworthy poster: “Kill terrorists. Bomb there house. Kill Bush. Bomb his f—in house.”

And by the way, liberal friends, I get the distaste for Sarah Palin.  Am not a big fan myself — but my god she commands my respect for surviving the horrible vileness directed at her.


That stuff about Sarah doing cross-hairs on Democratic districts?  Please.  Democrats did exactly the same thing.  Martial metaphors have been par for the course in political campaigns since the invention of politics.  And it may be that no living politician has received more death threats than Sarah Palin — and that’s today people.  Not “the Sixties.”

Liberals understandably wince at comparisons of them to Hitler and violent politics.  I wince too.  Say it my friends.  See some of the vile speech of the left and call it vile so that we can get on the same page.  Michael Kinsley says the right is more incendiary.  I say we’re going nowhere until right and left both acknowledge the nastiness they both produce.

7 Responses to Right versus Left Extremists

  1. jeff veazey says:

    Ken- Great piece. I’ll testify. I’ll say there is extremism on the left which embarasses me. I would probably land somewhere between you and Kinsley. I guess to really settle this we’ll have to have a census, or better yet, a Government Funded Study!, to determine the sheer numbers on either side that cross the line from patriotism to radical extremism. Where do Liberal extremists who hate Bush or another conservative leader or policy gather? Are there large evangical mega-churches where the leaders pronounce liberal policies to take over the government? MSNBC is a small blip compared to Fox. I don’t think Kinsley really got it right. There has to be a 12 step program for overcoming this ugliness and I will be the first to stand and say,” My name is Jeff, and I have been hateful to Conservatives.” Your wise words, “…arguing about the relative nastiness of our fringes is an enormous opportunity cost — how much more productive to discuss what we have in common among mainstream left and right Americans?” will probably be plagarized by some politician in the next few days. Who knows, maybe I will plagarize it.

    Actually, I think the martial messaging is not as prevalent throughout our history, or the others have just been over-whelmed by it. I think it was Chris Matthews last night who pointed out that baseball and horse racing were the dominant metaphors of political competition in the past.

    Keep holding up the mirror for us Ken. I’ll look into it as long as I can stand it. I still think there are far more people numbers wise with extreme views (not necessarily violent) on the right, than on the left. We don’t have anything like the Tea Party which ( permit a simplification here) sprang up because Republicans were not conservative enough.

  2. Paul Grubbs says:

    All of this vitriolic condemnation brings back painful memories of the JFK assassination. I was only eight years old but my hometown was blamed for his death. I was confused and hurt and my feelings eventually evolved into anger. I realized that I had not pulled the trigger nor had anything to do with our president’s death. Now, if I follow some editorial logic, I must once again saddle myself with guilt, shame, and remorse for the Tuscon massacre because I am a religious conservative. NOT!

    “After all, who killed the Kennedys? It was you and me!” ~Jagger- Richards

    Lets be reasonable and considerate. People have the right to speak freely no matter how stupid, hateful, and/or ignorant it may be. This, my brothers, IS politically correct (not vice versa). How we respond to their message of hateful criticisms is our freedom as well. I find it ironic that some of my friends from the sixties and seventies who protested against the Industrial War Machine (and suffered for their dissent), are now are actively seeking our government to curtail that same very right to protest. What gives? The Constitution? Apparently so.

  3. Pingback: Why Do Liberals Hate the Tea Party? « The Prince and The Little Prince

  4. Yep, both sides are guilty. Myself included. I loathed Bush and Cheney. Still can’t stand them. The Conservative pundits like Rush and Hannity make my blood boil. I guess I am one of the extremists. A rather unapologetic one, at that.

    I believe that a lot of people like Kinsley comes to that conclusion because of the volume the Right uses. Loud, screaming, and tea kettle seems to be their only volume settings. And it’s incessant. When you have that combination, it drowns out a lot of what the Left spews.

    Yet, Terrance H. said something very poignant when we were discussing this, “If you accept the point that minority parties spew the most vitriol, then it is true no matter who the minority party is.” Maybe that is why Kinsley came to the conclusion about the Right – because they’ve been the minority for a while. Maybe it’s a combination of this and the volume.

    I don’t know. All I know is that I’m guilty too.

    • Not seeing it spinnyliberal. Unless you tell me otherwise, I can’t believe you’ve been extremist. I can’t believe you’ve ever actively wished for some conservative’s death, or sported signs with a bullet hole in Bush’s or Cheney’s head. Sure, you’ve probably been intemperate. Me too. But you’ve proven yourself a non-extremist, in spades, by engaging in this dialogue, by seeing that it makes sense to listen to and engage some people who may hold disagreeable views. You’re resolutely liberal — good for you — as is my very dear friend Jeff Veazey above. But you’re both what I view as the best of liberalism, the large hearts, the smart and skeptical minds, the abiding concern for the less fortunate, and the human beings who never privilege ideology over human beings. Carry on. Your message is an honorable one.

      • I really appreciate that. And thank you for the compliments. Any more, and I won’t be able to fit my head through the door. 😉

        I’ve been enjoying your posts on Middle East & Israel. Even though I don’t agree with some of it, you give me a lot to think about. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  5. sarainitaly says:

    nice article. i happened upon it searching for my Bush montage. Thanks for posting my Palin and Bush montages. It really is remarkable how the Left forgets the environment under Bush, and the attacks on Palin, and focuses only on the attacks on Obama. Now we are seeing Obama embrace the droning of US citizens, expanding the patriot act, etc. and the people who created all that Bush hate are silent…. The problem with the extremists, from either side, is that the media supports the Left, so the whackjobs on the right are broadcast nightly, where as the whackjobs on the left ignored by MSM. I wasn’t a big fan of Bush, and I am not a fan of Obama, yet somehow that makes me a racist right wing extremist…. eyeroll. haha

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