Centrist writer and former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani aide John Avlon got a lot of people mad in recent months. One was conservative talk show host and GOP political Godfather Rush Limbaugh, who increasingly seems to be the Republican Party’s chief tactician, strategist and decider of who is or is not a “real” Republican. The other was MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, a hero to many on the left who arouses the same feelings among those on the right as Limbaugh does on the left (and often displays the same attitudes towards the center as Limbaugh does).
But that’s the way it goes for centrists, moderates and independents: when people on the left or right agree with them, then they are moderates, independents and centrists. But if they disagree they MUST be “really” on the other side, or liars. If they agree with them, then they have principles; if they don’t, well, then they are “mushy” or “wishy washy.”
However, these days it isn’t just a matter of attitude: in fact, in so many ways, in so many new and old media outlets, the center is now under fierce attack.
In the GOP, the Tea Party movement and talk show hosts such as Limbaugh, Sean “Rip-n-Read-GOP” Hannity and Glenn Beck (who on some days could perhaps use one of these) are seemingly conducting a purge of those wishy washy moderates who dare talk to and maybe even cross line and vote with Democrats. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Party, we see progressives — a word that is to “liberals” as “pre-owned cars” is to “used cars” — trying to duplicate the Let’s Defeat Joe Lieberman model and either proactively go after some Democrats considered too “corporatist” and centrist, or loudly announce that they just won’t vote for them in November. That’ll teach their party — and really advance their agenda (just as they really taught their party a lesson and advanced their agenda by not voting for Al Gore or voting for Ralph Nader in 2000).
The name of the game is often demonization — on talk radio and cable political talk shows, in pundits’ columns, in many posts, in some posts blogs write about other blogs, in some blog comments — because it gets more attention/audience/readership/hits than that boring old nuance where every issue isn’t painted as involving some folks with halos (“we”) and some folks with pitchforks and horns (“them”).
What are the dynamics of this? Where is some of this political screaming coming from? How is it influencing the major political parties, news media, political entertainment media, new media — and America’s polity in general?
John Avlon’s Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is the definitive book about America’s rapid slide into 24/7 rage politics and polarizing rhetoric that seeks to marginalize or obliterate the center. In 2005 Avlon wrote the definitive book about political independents Independent Nation: How Centrism Can Change American Politics,
which details key political figures throughout history who appealed to independents and centrists — a book that proved once in for all that independent voters and centrist politicians and candidates do NOT all talk like non-commital CSPAN hosts. Earth to the Left and Right: people who are independents, centrists and moderates are not necessary “neutral”: they will reach conclusions, take stands and vote.
Wingnuts is a monumental book — destined to be considered a Holy Book for moderates, centrists and independents — because it’s all in there: Avlon crams it with specifics based on detailed interviews that provide lively portraits of key figures on the extreme right and extreme left and some of their enablers on the not-so-extreme right and not-so-extreme left. He has big chunks of their demonizing, almost always assuredly inaccurate rhetoric (which makes absolutley no difference to their followers who as you read this are probably writing website articles and blog posts containing the same recycled narrative bile). But most importantly, Avlon, who was recently hired to be an official CNN staff political analyst, shows how the rhetoric is impacting the major parties and America’s political system itself.
Here’s just some of what he covers: how Obama derangement syndrome began shortly after Obama’s election (often practiced by the same folks who yelled about Bush derangement syndrome); how rumors spread and take hold; a must-read section called “How Obama Became Hitler, a Communist and the Antichrist”. He chronicles the growth and popularity of the partisan media and how people in both parties are trying to purge their party so it belongs to lockstep true believers. He looks at the 911 truthers, the Obama “Birthers”, the “Hatriot” movement and men of the cloth who clutch their Bibles and pray for Obama’s death.
Even more: he outlines how the mix of polarized parties, a big bucks industry named talk radio that can make money off of polarization, and the internet are increasing the “wingnuts'” power.
I read Avlon’s book twice. The second time I underlined parts that I felt were important — and his book is now totally defaced because his content is as strong as his lively writing style and the solid research done by him and his thorough researching staff.
Here are a few quotes, highlights and topics — and even though this is long it only touches a teenie weenie tip of the iceburg:
–His first three paragraphs set the stage in terms of partisan rhetoric:
A bad craziness snaked through American in the first year of the Obama administration.
“Obama is raping America. Obama is raping our values. Obama is raping our democracy.” That’s the judgment of Michael Savage and it’s the kind of talk that draws in nine million listeners, making him one of the top conservative radio hosts in the country.
On the left, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz declares: “The Republicans lie. They want to see you dead. They’re rather make money off your dead corpse. They kind of like it when that woman has cancer and they don’t have anything for us.”
–His definition of wingnuts (which some on the left and right dispute because they feel it doesn’t embrace them and really should refer only to the other side):
What is a wingnut? It’s someone on the far-right wing or far-left wing of the political spectrum. they are the professional partisans and unhinged activists, the hard-core haters and the paranoid conspiracy theorists. And they are on the rise.
Pumped up by the self-segregated echo chamer of talk radio, cable news, and the Internet, Winguts see politics as ideological bloodsport, an all-or-nothing struggle for the nation’s soul. They are energized by dividing Amreica into “us against them.” And for those with a vested interest in stirring the crazy-pot, all all this is good for business. Hate is a cheap and easy recruiting tool. But it can be murder on democracy.
–He links the rise with the first African-American President and details the impact of the sagging economy on political rhetoric and attitudes throughout the 20th and 21st century. The history is outlined in a detailed but highly compelling manner.
–Avlon notes something I’ve written about here extensively and regularly since Obama took office: how the Republican party has begun to follow the lead of talk show hosts. As I’ve often noted, talk show hosts have much different goals than political parties have traditionally had in America — and their tactics, polemics and goals do not a unified country make. Avlon notes the role of redistricting in also pushing “the center to the margins of our politics” and writes:
The fringe is now blurring with the base, enforcing bitter and predictable partisanship. The most influential figures are political entertainers like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck — and they are leaders without the responsibility of governing, a combination that encourages the demonization of difference and the condemnation of compromise. Now elected officials are starting to follow their model, mimicking talk raido’s confrontational style in an attempt to achieve Wingnut folk-hero status.
Elsewhere, he writes:
As the fringe blurs with the base, and the Internet provides an effective platform, more people in American poitics are beginning to buy into it.
–My favorite quote: “The Party of Lincoln is in danger of becoming the Party of Limbaugh.” (To which I would add: is “in danger of becoming”?) He notes how talk show hosts help create an actual “narrative” that is then picked up like a football and run to the goal line by others (including the follow-the-leader mainstream news media). Another quote which fits in with what I have noted often here: “The tail is wagging the dog; partisan media is driving the GOP’s message and not the other way around.”
–A detailed examination of the left, the Netroots and Bush derangement syndrome and Obama derangement syndrome.
–A look at polarizing leftist talk show hosts such as Schultz, Rachael Maddow and Olbermann (Olbermann clearly seems irked on his show: perhaps its because Wingnuts’ cover shows him along with Beck and Palin as examples of Wingnuts).
–The bailout and its impact. The rise of the Tea Party movement. He notes how many Tea Party members got their information mostly from “professional polarizers” like Limbaugh, Beck et. al.
–The misreading of the political tea leaves (pardon the expression) by Democratic progressives after Obama won. They thought it was a liberal ideological mandate but backlash to the bailout suggests otherwise.
–He nails the situation, challenge and danger for 21st century America:
The attack of the Wingnuts is an assault on the idea that what divides us is greater than what unites us…The moderate majority needs to stand up to the extremes before they spark a real season of violence. We have done this before and we can do it again, remembering what the old warrior President Eisenhower once said:”The middle of the road is all the useable surface. The extremes, left and right, are in the gutter.”
–Sarah Palin’s rise and role. The rise of Michelle Bachmann and Joe “You Lie!” Wilson — and how over-the-top rhetoric reaps political rewards in 21st century America where some believe being outrageous and insulting is being convincing and thoughtful.
–The birth of “White Minority Politics” that mirrors ethnic politics of past groups such as the Irish or Italians in the 20th century.
–His advice to those who don’t agree with the extremes. Here is a small part of it:
First, we have the numbers on our side — more Americans are independents than Democrats or Republicans and more Americans are centrist that liberal or conservative. Americans are not deeply divided — our political parties, pundits and activists are — and the explosive growth of independent voters is a direct relation to this disconnect….
….Second, we need to change the rules of the game — the professional partisans have rigged the system to re-elect incumbents by creating closed-primary safe seats that empower the extremes….
….Third, we need to stand up against the extremes, playing offense and not defense.”
Of course when moderates, centrists or independents do that then they are attacked as “really” being a D or an R or a progressive or a conservative, in an effort to discredit the content of their criticism.
There is a ton more in Avlon’s paintstakingly researched and footnoted book. We’re only offering a tiny peek here.
It’s worth noting that this book was published earlier this year and recent primaries and the injection of the Gulf Oil spill could change at least some of the dynamics but not by much. It’s virtually certain that Wingnuts will hold up in coming years just as well as Avlon’s earlier book, which itself remains a classic and must-own for those who believe “consensus,” “compromise,” and “negotiation” are not filthy words. And that’s no lie.
On a TMV scale of one to 5 stars, Wingnuts gets a 5. (Can we give it 10?)
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.