Flanking on the political fringe

The political compass is dividing the nation, not guiding it.

by Jennifer Bissell

We are living in an era of polarized politics. Whenever something goes wrong, thereâÄôs a finger pointed. Whenever something goes right, there is another finger pointed somewhere else. Now these fingers have extended themselves closer to home. In fact, in the past month, leaders from all four sides of the political compass have visited the Twin Cities to promote themselves. Karl Rove from the Authoritarian North visited campus. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann had a far-right rally in Minneapolis. Peter Gelderloo, a key figure of the anarchist movement, which is arguably a part of the libertarian South, discussed his book on the West Bank. And Dr. David Ray Griffin, a Sept. 11 conspiracy theorist who most appeals to the far left, just gave a lecture near Macalester College. To simplify the positions of these leaders to corresponding poles undoubtedly undermines their mission; some may not even perceive themselves as a pole representative. But the existence and popularity of these fringe groups illustrates how divided our country has become. Whether itâÄôs economics, war, health care or education, nobody seems to agree on anything these days. The extent of a fringe groupâÄôs effect on policy can vary, but the Overton Window of Political Possibilities theory shows the fringe can have a great influence if utilized by the less extreme. This is something to take note of. Within the typical right-to-left political spectrum, there is a window where policy can be made. This window is representative of a moderate view, or the point of compromise. However, the window can be shifted to one side if an extreme is moved further out. The tea baggers illustrate this point well. In terms of the political spectrum, tea baggers lie farther to the right. They essentially have traditional conservative values but are anti-taxes and anti-government, which pulls the rightâÄôs extreme further out. Whether imposed by Fox News or a natural shift, the tea baggersâÄô window has edged a little closer to the traditional Republican mindset. Now low taxes and small government looks like a compromise instead of an extreme itself. This is probably why the Republican Party has embraced rather than shunned the tea baggers. It makes their views seem more reasonable in comparison. However, not all fringe groups have received the same endorsement as the tea baggers. Many, like the critics of Sept. 11, go unnoticed. During the Q&A session of Dr. GriffinâÄôs Sept. 11 lecture, one audience member asked for an explanation of the leftâÄôs ignorance. Dr. GriffinâÄôs presentation had seemed to prove that not only was the war in Afghanistan illegal, but also morally unjustifiable. Why wasnâÄôt their group working more with the left? Why wasnâÄôt their evidence being publicized more? Where was their representation? The critics just want a more thorough investigation of Sept. 11 events. Their desires are less demanding, and they could help the left end the wars abroad. But the left hasnâÄôt used the critics to shift the Overton Window. They havenâÄôt utilized the power of a fringe group. Perhaps this is because the Democratic Party doesnâÄôt know how to handle dissent within its group. Chris Hedges, a writer and investigative reporter, pointed out during a recent presentation at the University of Minnesota that there is no outlet for political anger in the Democratic Party like there is in the Republican Party. In many respects, the government hasnâÄôt been responsive to the needs and wants of the public. For everyone, there is a tipping point, but as that anger grows, the tea party may become more enticing for an even greater share of the population. People want to be angry, and sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Hedges predicts that the tea partyâÄôs rage will continue to gain momentum and will eventually undermine the Democratic Party. The Democrats will begin to represent everything seemingly wrong, and the values associated with their party, such as gender and race equality, will become marginalized as well. Looking at the words and actions of some current tea baggers, we can already see that happening. These factions, while perhaps limited in size and number, could become a critical aspect of our countryâÄôs future. If handled properly, it could be for the better, but if handled improperly, it could be for the worse. HedgesâÄô final prediction is that the rise of the tea party will end in an authoritarian rule, another faction embraced by the Republican Party. President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rove were notorious for disregarding civil liberties, the publicâÄôs right to know and extending the powers of the executive branch. If we allow for the far rightâÄôs uprising, we allow for the NorthâÄôs uprising as well. Perhaps the Democrats have something to learn from the Republicans: It helps to embrace your partyâÄôs extremes. For Democrats, communism and socialism are taboos, and anarchy is out of the question, it seems. But whatâÄôs the harm in accepting smaller groups like the critics of Sept. 11? Is it really too dangerous to support those looking for truth and logic? ItâÄôs clear the country is divided, but we must be smart in our decisions. In order to move forward, working together is inevitable. On that note, compromise doesnâÄôt always have to be a game of winning alliances. But when it is, it helps to know how to play. Jennifer Bissell welcomes comments at [email protected].