Going to Extremes

Recently, we've seen the radically different ways that Democrats and Republicans deal with political radicalism in their ranks.

Throughout the summer, right-wing protestors descended upon town halls nationwide screaming about socialism and death panels, and the GOP consistently defended them and egged them on -- even when they came with guns. Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann called on her supporters "to slit our wrists" in a blood covenant against the Democrats' health-care reform plans, and though more sober members of her party may have been privately embarrassed, no one rebuked her publicly.

Last week, Pat Buchanan marked the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II with yet another of his periodic defenses of Adolf Hitler, who in Buchanan's telling "wanted to end the war in 1940, almost two years before the trains began to roll to the camps." His column, like several previous demonstrations of his World War II revisionism, hasn't stopped much of the media from treating him as a legitimate part of mainstream political discourse. Republicans haven't been forced to distance themselves from Buchanan or queried as to whether they share his Nazi sympathies.

Those who flirt with the left-wing fringe don't enjoy such indulgence. Van Jones, target of an often hysterical smear campaign by Glenn Beck over his admittedly radical past, was finally forced to resign his position as White House special adviser for green jobs this weekend. He was done in by the revelation that he'd signed a five-year-old September 11 Truther petition calling for an "immediate inquiry into evidence that suggests high-level government officials may have deliberately allowed the September 11th attacks to occur." It's unclear whether Jones knew exactly what he was signing or simply meant to lend his name to a more general call for an investigation into the Bush team's handling of pre-September 11 intelligence, but it doesn't matter -- he let himself be associated with something politically radioactive.

Though many progressives feel betrayed by the administration's failure to fight for Jones, the White House had little choice. We live in a country where the far left has been marginalized in a way that the far right has not. There's much to lament in this state of affairs. It's a bitter shame that a brilliant man like Jones should be disqualified for his brushes with nuttiness, while conservatives who view global warming as a fraud perpetrated by the forces of the one-world government, or support Middle Eastern policies meant to hasten the second coming, are able to serve in Republican administrations. Nevertheless, it is generally a good thing that the Democrats don't coddle their crazies the way the right does.

The GOP benefits from the zeal of its foot soldiers, from their chiliastic, by-any-means necessary approach to politics. But the party is also limited by the extremism of its base, which has decimated it in large swaths of the country. It's worth remembering that even in this season of furious right-wing obstruction, the Republican Party is more powerless than it's been in a generation.

In referring to the far left, I'm emphatically not talking about liberalism -- indeed, many leftists tend to use the word "liberal" as a slur. American leftism is a diffuse and catholic movement more than an ideology, one that's hard to define but familiar to anyone who's spent time on coastal campuses or at anti-war protests. In the United States, it stretches roughly from the Workers World Party to the Greens, and includes both admirable and absurd elements: If someone wanted to make a Web site called "Stuff the Far Left Likes," it would probably include death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, Palestinian liberation, and the World Social Forum.

Unlike, say, the theocratic right, the far left has virtually no representation in mainstream politics. Cynthia McKinney, the member of Congress most in tune with it, was first drummed out of office via a primary challenge in 2002 and left the Democratic Party altogether a few years later. In the midst of Israel's bombardment of Gaza last year -- an attack that horrified many liberals as well as well as virtually all leftists -- a congressional resolution expressing support for Israel passed unanimously in the Senate and drew a meager five nays in the House. Sarah Palin paid no political price for quoting the fascist author Westbrook Pegler in her speech at the Republican National Convention, but it would be unthinkable for a Democrat to cite the far more respectable Noam Chomsky, an intellectual revered by leftists worldwide who self-identifies as a libertarian socialist.

The marginalization of the left has its costs. Political energy tends to concentrate around extremes, and while the Republican Party has been able to draw on the passion of their right flank, there's a yawning gap between left-wing culture and the Democrats. Nowhere was this gulf more damaging than in the 2000 election, when an electorally significant part of the left voted for Ralph Nader instead of Al Gore.

In some ways, this alienation is a product of the left's own organizing strategies. While the foot soldiers of the religious right worked to take the Republican Party over from within, activists of the left generally stayed outside party politics, especially the kind of low-level, precinct-by-precinct mobilization necessary to build political power. Democrats don't cater to them because they haven't made themselves a significant force inside the party.

Democrats, still traumatized by George McGovern's 1972 electoral debacle, are happy to keep it that way. They spent decades flinching at the fear of Nixonian attacks, desperate to distance themselves from any hint of the subversive or countercultural. Bill Clinton, for example, made "Sister Souljah" political shorthand for demonstrating one's centrism and independence by attacking left-wing excesses.

No equivalent concept exists in the conservative movement. Politicians who try to separate themselves from right-wing madness by blaspheming Rush Limbaugh or evangelical leader James Dobson are quickly forced to repent. As a result, the center of the political conversation is pulled steadily rightward. In this sense, legitimatizing more left-wing voices, even those that make liberals uncomfortable, would be a tremendous help to progressivism.

That said, the Republicans' slavish fealty to the right has created tremendous problems for the party. Today's GOP is captive to a minority faction. That faction is tremendously well organized, with an enviable media echo chamber. It can thwart Democratic progress. But without some appeal to the center, it is unlikely to succeed in recapturing political power.

Progressives may wish that, like conservatives, they didn't have to deal with mulish opposition from within their own party. But the reason there's no GOP equivalent of the Blue Dog Democrats is because, save the senators from Maine, the party has shed all its moderates. This lets the right bask in euphoric ideological certainty, and it makes the Republicans uncompromising to the point of nihilism, but it's not helpful for the party's ultimate governing prospects. There is much to fear in the right's comfort with radicalism, but a lot less to envy.