On the op-ed page of today's New York Times, Charles Blow argues that we're underestimating the right:
Big-city liberals and their blogging buddies love to paint Tea Partiers as yokels with incoherent candidates and language-mauling signs. (Some have even dubbed their misspellings and grammatical gaffes "Teabonics.") On some level, this may be true. But there is also a certain hypocrisy to these taunts.
The unpleasant fact that these liberals rarely mention, and may not know, is that large swaths of the Democratic base, groups they need to vote in droves next month -- blacks, Hispanics and young people -- are far less civically literate than their conservative counterparts....
Blow goes on to cite data from a recent Pew survey showing that the Democratic-leaning groups he cites, and Democrats as a whole, are less likely to know that Democrats control the House than Republicans are, and are less likely to know who's the vice president of the United States.
But I wouldn't argue that the problem with teabaggers and their candidates is what they don't know. The problem, as the saying goes, is what they do know that just ain't so.
The right's advantage over the left (and even the center) derives in large part from the fact that the right has figured out a way to keep a lot of ordinary Americans political engaged -- these people listen to talk radio and watch Fox News for fun. Far fewer people do the same on the left, which is why lefty talk radio has always struggled, and MSNBC prime time gets ratings that are adequate but nowhere near Fox's.
Righties are ignorant? Hell no. They know a lot of stuff. But a lot of the stuff they know is crazy. Elsewhere in the Times, Kate Zernike has a good article about the reading habits of Beckistas and other nouveau righties -- not just Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and the collected works of Glenn Beck's favorite author, Cleon Skousen (the extremism of both gets a thorough airing), but this:
...Pamphlets in the Tea Party bid for a Second American Revolution ... include Frederic Bastiat's "The Law," published in 1850, which proclaimed that taxing people to pay for schools or roads was government-sanctioned theft....
Bastiat called taxation "legal plunder," allowing the government to take something from one person and use it for the benefit of someone else, "doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime." In his view, protective tariffs, subsidies, progressive taxation, public schools, a minimum wage, and public assistance programs were of a piece. "All of these plans as a whole," he wrote, "constitute socialism."
So when right-wingers call Obama a "socialist," they're not being ignorant exactly. By Bastiat's definition, you're a "socialist" if you believe public schools should exist. Or a minimum wage. Or welfare or unemployment insurance or Social Security or Medicare.
And Bastiat is taken seriously. We learn, for instance, that
Justin Amash, the 30-year-old Republican state legislator running for the House seat once held by Gerald Ford in Michigan, frequently posts links to essays by Hayek and Bastiat on his Facebook page....
Republicans keep their base focused on politics, and so the base knows basic facts (Dems control the House, Biden is VP), but then they also know that public schools are the moral equivalent of Stalinism. Or something like that. By contrast, Democrats don't even seem to want their base to know that Republicans believe these crazy things. Democrats don't seem to want to engage their base politically by talking about, y'know, politics. So they're avoiding pointing out damaging facts about their opponents.
Here's more stuff Republicans know that just ain't so:
Sharron Angle is now getting on board the latest Republican bandwagon, warning that sharia -- the term for Muslim religious law, which the American right has conflated to refer to its branches within Muslim extremism -- is taking over parts of the United States.
The Mesquite Local News reports on a Republican rally that Angle attended on Wednesday, where she took questions from GOP supporters:
One of the last questioners asked about "Muslims taking over the U.S.," including a question about Angle's stance on the proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York.
"We're talking about a militant terrorist situation, which I believe isn't a widespread thing, but it is enough that we need to address, and we have been addressing it," Angle said.
"Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas are on American soil, and under Constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don't know how that happened in the United States. It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a foreign system of law to even take hold in any municipality or government situation in our United States."
While I think pointing out nouveau Republicans' extremist views on basic government programs could be harmful to those Republicans' electoral chances, I think it's a harder task to go after crazy talk like this on scary Muslims (although someone like Jon Stewart could certainly get his audience snickering by sending someone to Dearborn to surreptitiously order bacon and eggs, only to discover that bacon is openly sold at diners there).
Nevertheless, here's the big difference between Democrats and Republicans: Republicans tell their voters a lot of stuff about the issues of the day. Democrats do this much less. What Republicans tell their voters is often preposterous -- but it gets them out to vote. Democrats, for the most part, don't seem to want to motivate their voters with hot-button issues -- not even truthfully.