Extremist Liberals? Say What?

A Nutty New Poll Finds Voters Think Democratic Party Has More Radical Influence

A new poll finds a large number of likely voters think Democrats are the more extremist-driven party, writes Eric Alterman.

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul recently remarked that we're headed for an "Amero" and a "borderless, mass continent." Meanwhile, a new poll finds likely voters in battleground districts see extremists as having a more dominant influence over the Democratic Party than they do over the GOP. (AP/James Crisp)
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul recently remarked that we're headed for an "Amero" and a "borderless, mass continent." Meanwhile, a new poll finds likely voters in battleground districts see extremists as having a more dominant influence over the Democratic Party than they do over the GOP. (AP/James Crisp)

Below I’ve assembled a small collection for you of some of the new thinking that Tea Party advocates are bringing into the political process in case you’ve not been paying attention:

“Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”

Christine O’Donnell, Republican candidate for Senate, Delaware, October 18, 2010

“You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said, it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you, the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”

Sharron Angle, Republican candidate for Senate, Nevada, January 2010

CNN’s John King: “But how about an American born tomorrow or born the day after Joe Miller was sworn in in Washington? Would that person perhaps grow up in an America where there is not a federal Social Security program if you got your way?

Joe Miller: "Absolutely.”

Joe Miller, Republican candidate for Senate, Alaska, September 1, 2010

[On Social Security]: “I don’t know whether it’s constitutional or not. … yeah, it’s the same thing. It’s gonna go up through Texas, I guess, all the way to Montana. So, it’s a real thing, and when you talk about it, the thing you just have to be aware of is that, if you talk about it like it’s a conspiracy, they’ll paint you as a nut. It’s not a conspiracy, they’re out in the open about it. I saw the YouTube of Vincente Fox talking about the Amero. So, it’s not a secret. Now it may not be [inaudible] tomorrow, but it took ’em 20 or 30 years to get the Euro, and they had to push people kicking and screaming into the Euro. But I guarantee you it’s one of their long term goals to have one sort of borderless, mass continent.”

Rand Paul, Republican candidate for Senate in Kentucky, 2008

His response when asked why people should vote for him: “Because I do not wear high heels. She [Jane Norton] has questioned my manhood, and I think it’s fair to respond. I have cowboy boots, they have real bullshit on them. And that’s Weld County bullshit, not Washington, D.C., bullshit.”

Ken Buck, Republican candidate for Senate, Colorado, July 17, 2010

"There’s a reason Greenland was called Greenland," he said. "It was actually green at one point in time. … it’s a whole lot whiter now.”

Ron Johnson, Republican candidate for Senate, Wisconsin, August 23, 2010

I suppose it is possible to agree or disagree with any of the above sentiments and possibly even disprove a few of them. But it would be hard to argue that they do not constitute departures from the sorts of comments one generally hears in election campaigns—particularly for a body that one typically hears called “the world’s greatest debating society.”

The intellectual sources of these unfamiliar sounding notions, of course, are not exactly new. (Not much in life ever is, alas.) Princeton historian Sean Wilenz traced some of the intellectual roots of the Tea Party politicians and their supporters in a recent New Yorker article.

Particularly influential in Wilenz’s view is Willard Cleon Skousen, an American author and political theorist whose self-published books like The Naked Communist and The Naked Capitalist have played a major role in shaping the ideology of the Tea Party movement. This is in no small measure thanks to the reverence with which the books are treated by the influential cable and radio host Glenn Beck.

According to the former work, Communists were creating “a regimented breed of Pavlovian men whose minds could be triggered into immediate action by signals from their masters.” According to the latter work, the Ivy League Establishment formed “the world’s secret power structure” to control the actions of all of us through the Federal Reserve, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Rockefeller Foundation. This particular conspiracy commenced, he explained, when President Woodrow Wilson’s close adviser Col. Edward M. House helped to create the Federal Reserve to institute the graduated income tax.

Skousen founded the Freemen Institute in 1971, which was later renamed the National Center for Constitutional Studies. It targeted for elimination: “the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communication Commission’s fairness doctrine in editorial broadcasting, the federal government’s change of the gold standard in currency, all subsidies to farmers, all federal aid to education, all federal social welfare, foreign aid, social security, elimination of public school prayer and Bible reading, and (that familiar right-wing nemesis) the United Nations.”

Beck touts almost all of Skousen’s works. He put Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap in the first spot on his required-reading list, though this may have something to do with the royalties he receives for writing a rapturous new introduction for the reissued tome. Wilenz notes that this once-forgotten book sold more than 250,000 copies in the first half of 2009. Local branches of the Tea Party Patriots, the United American Tea Party, and other groups across the country have since organized study groups around it. “It is time we learn and follow the FREEDOM principles of our Founding Fathers,” a United American Tea Party video declares, referring to the principles expounded by Skousen’s book.

I do not cite the above statements by conservative Senate candidates or conservative authors—and their cable television and radio promoters—to critique or even examine them terribly closely. Many of them are, in any case, entirely matters of faith and beyond proof. Rather I raise them to provide a context for the jaw-dropping headline on Tobin Harshaw’s October 15 New York Times “Opinionator” blog: “Are the Democrats the True Extremists?

Harshaw, who is almost as baffled as yours truly, notes the virtually unarguable fact that “the progressives are at the moment far more marginalized by their Democratic president and Congressional leadership than are the Tea Party enthusiasts by the Republican powers-that-be.” (And let us note, how many prominent progressives hold views as—let us say “unorthodox”—as those outlined above?)

Yet Harshaw cites a report by The Hill’s Alexander Bolton that found:

Likely voters in battleground districts see extremists as having a more dominant influence over the Democratic Party than they do over the GOP. This result comes from The Hill 2010 Midterm Election Poll, which found that 44 percent of likely voters say the Democratic Party is more dominated by its extreme elements, whereas 37 percent say it’s the Republican Party that is more dominated by extremists.

Harshaw surveys a number of liberal and conservative bloggers to try to get to the bottom of this mystery. The BooMan Tribune, he notes, comes up with he calls “a dandy of a conspiracy theory,” pointing out that the poll in question was commissioned from Mark Penn and Doug Schoen. The accusation is, “Schoen and Penn make their living off of corporate clients, and they do everything they can to make the Democratic Party sympathetic to those client’s interests. All this poll represents is an effort to blame the midterm losses on the Democrats going too far to the left.”

Indeed, if you want to hear what either of these guys think you’re likely to find one of them on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News or in the pages of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. But without any evidence it is unfair to accuse pollsters of doctoring a poll—at least any more than most. As likely is the fact that the people polled have been watching plenty of Fox News—or news that is driven by Fox News, which includes much of the mainstream media.

It’s hard to keep track of all the “news” sources this year running ideological interference for these nutty views. In the case of Fox it is purposeful and ideologically driven. In the rest of the mainstream media it is a function of laziness in some cases and a commitment to objectivity in others that prevents a journalist from calling a spade a spade and a liar a liar.

In any case, this extremist liberal is more than a little concerned about what this country will look like when we (inevitably) pay the price.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow