No sooner had Christine O'Donnell made her debut as the newest heroine of the far-right Republican resurgence, (taking the Delaware Senate nomination from the state's moderate GOP icon, Rep. Mike Castle) than the sensible Washington consensus warned against making fun of her social-policy views. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post warned that portraying O'Donnell and fellow Tea Party nominees Sharron Angle and Joe Miller as "wacky extremists" would prove "unduly dismissive." The literary critic turned law professor Stanley Fish invoked Greek mythology to predict that, if liberals treat the views of Tea Party candidates with "scorn and derision," voter backlash against our "snobbery" will bring us "President Palin."
Indeed, outside of Saturday Night Live, it has seemed more acceptable to mock O'Donnell's long-ago flirtation with witchcraft (or maybe it was Satanism, or possibly just a case of watching too many Billy Idol videos) than her later incarnation as the founder of a chastity-advocacy group, the Saviour's Alliance for Lifting the Truth (SALT).
It's true that no serious candidate for office -- even one put on the ballot with the support of just 5 percent of a state's voters, as O'Donnell was -- should be dismissed or treated with "derision," since he or she is on the doorstep of a position of serious power. And of course people's personal religious views should always be treated with respect. However, it would be a profound mistake for Democrats and liberals to hold back from showing voters just how extreme and out of touch the views of these candidates really are. And to achieve that, the easily understood social extremism of an O'Donnell is a valuable gift.
The biggest challenge for Democrats this fall was revealed in a poll for CNN released Sept. 26: Only 36 percent of voters say the Republican Party is "too extreme," while 42 percent perceive the Democrats as too extreme. About the same percentage, 43 percent, say the Tea Party is too extreme. So even as the Republican Party has sold its soul to the Tea Party, voters perceive it as an island of mainstream between the equally wacky extremes of the Democrats and the Tea Party. These numbers are probably a function of the simple fact that the Democrats are the party that is changing things, as with health-care reform -- and change creates anxiety. Having no responsibility to govern, the Republican Party isn't actively doing anything that makes anyone nervous (yet), and it has even been able to define ideas that Republicans have supported themselves as if they came from the policy handbook of the Weather Underground. But whatever the cause, if Democrats fail to show how far the Tea Party-dominated Republican Party is from the mainstream of American public life, it will constitute political malpractice, with the voters as victims.
One problem is that Tea Party extremism is so far out and obscure that it doesn't immediately register as extremism. They want to repeal the 17th Amendment! That sounds odd, but most of us don't know off-hand what the 17th Amendment is. And even after being reminded that it's the one that has to do with direct election of senators, it's still not clear why they want to repeal it, other than the fact that it was passed during the Progressive Era. It takes a lot of explaining, and I still don't quite get it, plus it seems so unlikely to happen that I can't get too worked up about it. (There's also the fact that living in Washington, D.C., without senators, I don't have a vote to lose.)
More important, the Tea Party movement's embrace of eccentric constitutionalism and rhetorical libertarianism has had the effect of moving social issues to the background. Most of the Tea Party activists, and all of their candidates, hold the same cluster of not-very-libertarian views on social and cultural issues as their far-right predecessors, usually several degrees more extreme. (Angle, for example, has said that a young teenager who becomes pregnant as a result of rape by her father should "make a lemon situation into lemonade.") But those views are obscured behind a confusing screen of constitutional and economic nonsense.
These social views are the positions that voters, especially the younger voters and suburbanites who turned decisively against Republicans in 2006 and 2008 and who are now wavering, understand. They don't need to find a copy of the Constitution to decipher the extremism. Remember that there were two issues during the Bush years that dramatically illustrated to voters the extremism of the Republican far right at that time. The first was the case of Terry Schiavo, in which congressional leaders sought to intervene in a family's private medical tragedy. The Schiavo intervention, opposed by 70 percent of the public, derailed Congress and the Bush presidency in the early months of 2005, contributing to the subsequent defeat of Social Security privatization.
The other issue that damaged the Republican image with suburban moderates was the party's opposition to stem-cell research. Large majorities support stem-cell research, and several states, including Missouri, passed ballot initiatives to encourage such research. The insistence by the far right that its social values should prevail over personal or family decisions, and even over science itself, is a powerful, visceral reminder of the cost of extremism.
That's not to say it isn't frustrating to fight yet another election on the turf of social issues. In an ideal world, we'd have a robust debate over progressive economic policies, and the advantages of liberal proposals would be clear. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson show in their superb new book, Winner-Take-All Politics, decades of emphasis on "non-material" issues, such as social questions and environmentalism, in the progressive world has come at the cost of a real effort to address inequality and economic insecurity. Raising money from Wall Street, and appealing to relatively affluent suburban voters alienated by the right's social agenda, the Democratic Party has de-emphasized the economic debate, leaving it ill-prepared for the tough political and legislative choices of the moment.
In an ideal world, it would be easy to show that the economic views of the new Republican stars are as extreme and unhinged as their social views. But it's probably too late to start that now. Democrats should not dismiss the new Tea Party Republicans, but they should be unafraid to call them "wacky extremists" – a new and wackier version of a familiar type -- and show exactly why that's the right term.