Every four years, presidential candidates from both parties say, "This is the most important election of our lifetimes." Reporters predict that this will be the most negative campaign in history. Partisans say that if their side loses, the disaster will echo through decades, and we believe that our opponents are more dastardly than they've ever been. And over the last couple of years, we liberals have looked at conservatives and thought that they have reached levels of craziness unseen before.
So historian/author/smart guy Rick Perlstein, who knows more about the conservative movement of the last half-century than pretty much anyone, warns us that what we're seeing now is really nothing new:
Over fifteen years of studying the American right professionally — especially in their communications with each other, in their own memos and media since the 1950s — I have yet to find a truly novel development, a real innovation, in far-right "thought." Right-wing radio hosts fingering liberal billionaires like George Soros, who use their gigantic fortunes – built by virtue of private enterprise under the Constitution – out to "socialize" the United States? 1954: Here's a right-wing radio host fingering "gigantic fortunes, built by virtue of private enterprise under the Constitution ... being used to 'socialize' the United States." Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, "fed up with elitist judges" arrogantly imposing their "radically un-American views" — including judges on the Supreme Court, whose rulings he's pledged to defy? 1958: Nine Men Against America: The Supreme Court and its Attack on American Liberties, still on sale at sovereignstates.org.
Although Perlstein acknowledges that "What's changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP," this is what makes all the difference. You can still make the case that conservatives are crazier now, because the key factor isn't the craziness of the craziest idea circulating among them—say, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and successfully engineered a massive conspiracy to cover it up, as opposed to the idea that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent—it's how widely those ideas are held, and by whom. The conspiracy theories and hate-driven beliefs find purchase not just on the fringe, but among elected lawmakers, influential media figures, and in many cases, a majority of Republican voters.
So when they gain power, real people's lives are affected. For example, many conservatives never stopped believing that women who make their own sexual decisions are dirty sluts, but since so many Republicans won office in 2010, that belief translated into a torrent of legislation. In 2011, a record 92 pieces of state legislation restricting abortion rights were enacted, along with measures to restrict access to contraception and renew the failure that is abstinence-only sex education.
And in the Republican party of today, looniness practically operates on a ratchet, moving only in one direction. That's because there are almost no moderates left in the party to push back. In order for a party to undergo an ideological shift, it needs an internal force willing to champion that shift. Let's say the GOP suffers a big defeat in this year's elections. Who is going to successfully argue that the party needs to turn its back on its nuttiest elements? All the moderates who have retired in disgust or been purged in primaries? They're gone, and the Republicans who are left couldn't care less what they have to say. No, if the Republicans lose, everyone in the party will agree that they only lost because they weren't conservative enough, that they didn't take on the hated Barack Obama with sufficient venom and fury. And the center of gravity within the party will move even farther to the fringe.