On an episode of MSNBC’s “Hardball” in April, host Chris Matthews excoriated politicians who attempt to run as independents, using consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid as an example of how third parties muck up the two party system. Disgusted, Matthews concluded that “third parties suck!” Not long after that diatribe, when Florida governor and current candidate for US Senate Charlie Crist left the Republican Party due to the surging popularity of a Tea Party-anointed challenger, Matthews did not criticize Crist’s decision to run third party, but he did bash the GOP half of his formerly beloved two party system. Remarked Matthews, “What happens to Republicans who don’t march to the right wing tune? Well they’re getting purged. This is Stalinesque, this stuff.”
Despite his rhetoric, Matthews’ aversion to third parties is not the mere possibility of voters having more than two choices on a ballot, but the promotion of any candidate who might disrupt the political center of either party. Matthews seeming comfort with Crist’s decision to run third party reflects not only this same attachment to the political status quo and his love affair with the Washington beltway—but his nasty reaction to anything outside of it.
Matthews’ visceral attitude toward populism was the subtext to his recent MSNBC special “The Rise of the New Right,” an hour long program intended to “expose” the Tea Party, talk radio and conservative activists for what they “really are,” or at least what Matthews and his liberal friends think they are. For example, the special began by focusing on protesters who hold signs that liken President Obama to Adolph Hitler or other tyrannical dictators. Mind you, this is the same Matthews who recently accused Florida Republicans of adopting the violent tactics of communist dictator Joseph Stalin, by allegedly “purging” Crist from the GOP.
In Matthews’ mind, the Left is represented by families like the Kennedy’s, the Right by families like the Bush’s, and anyone outside this Washington-wide circle of elites is not only too fringe, but a threat to America as we know it. In a sense, Matthews is right. America as we know it is literally bankrupt—this is what the Tea Party and so many Americans now sympathetic to them are so angry about, as they continue to agitate against the old politics. Illogically, Matthews is not only appalled but disturbed that this populist anger might actually be directed toward the same elites who got us into this mess.
In his special, Matthews draws a line from Senator Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society to today’s grassroots conservatives and talk host Glenn Beck, outlining the alleged dangers of populism without bothering to consider whether any of these protests from the Right have been, or could ever be, justified. If in the past, McCarthy and John Birch Society founder Robert Welch were mistaken in their belief that our government had been infiltrated by communists, Matthews fails to mention that such paranoia was often born of wider conservative concerns about the massive growth of the state in a post-New Deal, and later Great Society, America.
Today, there is widespread bipartisan consensus concerning the insolvency of decades-old programs like Social Security and Medicare. Were conservatives in the ’40s ’50s and ’60s wrong about the inevitable dangers of such programs, despite the eccentricities of some right-wing leaders? Are today’s Tea Partiers wrong to be concerned about a $13 trillion national debt—of which Social Security and Medicare contribute greatly to—despite the eccentricities of some its members or the outlandish language of some talk radio hosts? Is it possible that Matthews is just as paranoid about the “danger” posed by talk radio or the Tea Party as McCarthy and John Birchers were about the “danger” posed by the US government? Matthews would like us to believe that such right-wing anger, past or present, is always born of irrational fear—so is the Left’s fear of conservative anger often paranoid and irrational, per Matthews’ example.
Columnist E.J. Dionne notes the connection between yesterday’s conservative populists and today’s, writing for Real Clear Politics, “The rise of the Tea Party movement is a throwback to an old form of libertarianism that sees most of the domestic policies that government has undertaken since the New Deal as unconstitutional.” Indeed. Since the Cold War, the mainstream conservative movement has exhibited an uncharacteristic comfort with bloated federal government, something evident during the Nixon years, the budget-busting Reagan era, and perhaps most bizarrely during the George W. Bush administration. Thankfully, today’s Right has far more in common with the libertarian philosophy of Barry Goldwater or even some of the more radical anti-FDR conservatives who preceded him.
As Matthews longs for the GOP of Nelson Rockefeller and Mitt Romney, this writer continues to take heart that more conservatives than ever do not, as an older, more traditionally conservative and libertarian philosophy continues to reemerge. An establishment man like Matthews is scared—and should be. And in fearing today’s feistier conservatives, if liberals continue to insist that Goldwater’s proclamation that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” set dangerous precedent, perhaps Chris Matthews should finally consider whether his ongoing extremism in the defense of the status quo is any virtue—not to mention, far more dangerous.