When a political party that was previously committed to the norms and rules of a democratic society begins to descend into dangerous political extremism, there are a number of key warning signs.
As previous TDS Strategy Memos have noted, among the first is the widespread adoption of the philosophy of “politics as warfare.” TDS has documented this change in the thinking of the Republican Party and along with it the rise of other disturbing trends such as the acceptance of measures to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters and the idea that it is legitimate to paralyze the operations of government in order to achieve partisan political objectives.
Another very significant and dangerous warning sign of growing political extremism, however, becomes evident when a political party embraces the idea that any expression of opposition to its extremist political agenda – even if expressed through entirely legitimate democratic channels — is actually quasi-fascist in character and presents a threat to democracy rather than being an example of democracy in action.
As Republicans have encountered powerful and widespread public opposition to their 2010 agenda, they have increasingly begun to express this view. In recent weeks the following quite disturbing notions have been circulated in the Republican and conservative world.
• That recall elections are not exercises in democracy but rather attacks on democracy.
• That when members, financial contributors and observers of a non-profit organization protest actions with which they disagree, they are behaving as “gangsters”, “bullies” and “totalitarians.”
• That when the actions of powerful individuals are “exposed to the public view,” this represents “releasing the liberal thugs on them”, “intimidation” and “corrodes democracy.”
• That when Democrats decide to use the same fundraising techniques as Republicans, noting as justification the role of wealthy funders like the Koch Brothers on the conservative side, this represents “an attack on [those individuals] first amendment rights” and an attempt to “intimidate and silence” them.
As Democrats will quickly note, in each of these cases there are comparable or even more extreme examples of precisely the same behavior on the Republican and conservative side that long pre-date the current examples (e.g. the demonizing of George Soros or the organizing of boycotts against companies with gay-friendly or pro-choice policies).
But the existence of a double standard is a secondary issue. Far more important is the fact that these current Republican/conservative criticisms are not directed at the substance of the particular debates in question but rather at challenging the basic legitimacy of exercising democratic rights themselves.
This point must be strongly emphasized and underlined. Actions such as (1) supporting recall election campaigns, (2) deciding to criticize or withdraw financial or other support from an organization with which a person disagrees, or (3) criticizing or publicizing the actions of individuals whose actions materially affect American political life are all actions that are utterly, absolutely and entirely legal and democratic in character – regardless of whether it is progressives or conservatives who engage in them. The deeply troubling underlying implication behind the recent conservative criticisms of these actions is the view that when such challenges are directed against Republicans or conservatives they are inherently illegitimate, thuggish and undemocratic.