Columns » John Brummett

Civility and other vices

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It was nearly a decade ago, time flying as it's prone. I was in Springdale in the lobby of the convention center, watching hundreds of Washington County Republicans file in for the annual dinner.

I was chatting, amiably, I thought, with Marty Ryall, then head of the state Republican Party.

All of a sudden Ryall told me he needed to stop talking to me because any semblance of collegiality with me was a liability in that crowd.

“These are ‘movement Republicans,' ” he said.

Those are Republicans who are so fervently pure in their conservative dogma that, at least as this Republican operative saw it, they're not likely to excuse civility with a guy from the newspaper who is liberal in their eyes, if not so much in the eyes of real liberals.

Actually, the more accurate term is “movement conservatives.” These people embrace conservatism wholly and the Republican Party only as long as it obliges them — on small and inactive government, muscular foreign policy and assorted social, religious and cultural issues.

Barry Goldwater got it started in 1964 by saying that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice. Gerald Ford, a decided moderate Republican of an old and lost style that worked with Democrats, interrupted it by becoming the accidental president and making Nelson Rockefeller his vice president. Ronald Reagan solidified it by cutting taxes, saying government was the problem and traipsing to the religious-right rallies to perform his scripted lines about God and country and family values.

This is why our politics is dysfunctional. Republicans can't work in pragmatic cooperation with Democrats because they must keep assuaged the sustaining fiery passion of their party, which is deposited in movement conservatives who believe it is a sin to modulate the supposed gospel of extreme conservatism.

Now Democrats confront the same thing on the left, with moveon.org and that outfit that abused the criminal justice system by filing a complaint with the Justice Department against Mike Ross for selling his pharmacy at a reasonable price and disagreeing with doctrinaire liberals on health insurance. Those people ought to be brought up on charges themselves for filing a false police report.

The fringe may still be only the fringe. But it's where the power is anymore.

All of that is to lend context to what's happened the last few days in a New York congressional district abutting Canada that is traditionally Republican, but in the dying style of moderate Northeast Republicanism.

Facing a vacancy requiring a special election, which took place Wednesday, the district's 11 county Republican chairmen chose to nominate Dede Scozzafava, a moderate state assemblywoman who has union friends and has spoken softly toward abortion choice, gay rights and the stimulus package. Then movement conservatives nationwide, with their new network of blogs and their self-styled cable news provider (and having little else to pay attention to), became outraged that so-called Republicans would nominate such a heretic.

That led to a third-party conservative candidate named Doug Hoffman. He went to a newspaper editorial board in the district to say he wasn't all that versed on local issues. But he had former Republican congressman Dick Armey at his side to explain to the local editorialists that the only thing that mattered was national conservative purity.

Last Saturday, Scozzafava dropped out.

Intolerance, polarization, dysfunction, incivility, extremism as virtue — this is modern American politics. You'd best get far right or far left because there's nothing but fatal crossfire in the once-lush fields between.

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