On July 27, 2008, Jim David Adkisson sat down and wrote a four-page manifesto in which he described his intense hatred for “the damn left-wing liberals.” “There is a vast left-wing conspiracy in this country,” Adkisson wrote, and “these liberals are working together to attack every decent [and] honorable institution in the nation, trying to turn this country into a communist state. Shame on them.”
Adkisson, a graying man from the Knoxville suburb of Powell, Tennessee, intended the manifesto to be his suicide note. When he was done, he got into his Ford Escape and drove to the parking lot of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville.
Just days before, the church made headlines for its efforts to open a local coffee shop for gays and lesbians. Leaving the manifesto on the seat of the car, Adkisson walked inside the church carrying a guitar case stuffed with a shotgun and 76 rounds of ammunition.
The congregants were enjoying a children’s performance of the musical “Annie” when Adkisson abruptly opened the guitar case and pulled out the shotgun. According to witnesses, Adkisson fired off a harmless round that startled everyone before walking into the sanctuary and firing indiscriminately. Parishioners dove under pews or ran from the building when the shooting started.
Linda Kraegar, a 61-year-old grandmother and retired schoolteacher, was shot in the face with a shotgun blast. A 60-year-old foster father named Greg McKendry, who was described by the press as a “burly usher,” got up to shield others from the attack and was hit in the chest.
When Adkisson stopped to reload, he was tackled by churchgoers, who were able to hold him until police arrive. No children were hurt. Greg McKendry was dead at the scene. Linda Kraegar died the next day. Seven other people were wounded.
When detectives went to Adkisson’s apartment, they found it filled with ammunition, guns, and brass knuckles. But scattered among the weaponry, the detectives also found books and newsletters penned by leading conservative pundits. Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder by Michael Savage. Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism by Sean Hannity. The O’Reilly Factor by Bill O-Reilly. Addison’s manifest was largely a distillation of these works, ranting about how liberals were a “cancerous pestilence” and “pest like termites” that are systematically “contribut[ing] to the downfall of this great nation.”
And then Adkisson went the next step, in the logic of anger:
This was a symbolic killing. Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg’s book. I’d like to kill everyone in the mainstream media . . . Someone had to get the ball rolling. I volunteered. I hope others do the same . . . If life ain’t worth living anymore don’t just Kill yourself, do something for your country before you go. Go Kill Liberals.
The events left the church’s pastor, Rev. Chris Buice, with a shattered congregation. “People were killed in the sanctuary of my church, which should be the holy place, the safe place. People were injured,” he told PBS’s Rick Karr a couple of weeks later. “A man came in here, totally dehumanized us – members of our church were not human to him. Where did he get that? Where did he get that sense that we are not human.”
Flash forward a few months.
It was October 7, 2008. John McCain and Barack Obama had just finished with their second debate appearance – a debate most observers thought Obama won handily. McCain’s campaign was losing ground on the Democratic front-runner, and Republican officials from McCain’s campaign told reporters that they intended to mount a much more aggressive series of attacks against Obama. The only way Republicans believed they could win was to “shift the conversation back to questions about the Democrat’s judgment, honesty, and personal associations.”
Within days, the McCain campaign began implementing this shift in strategy. McCain began focusing relentlessly on Obama’s past associations with radical leftist William Ayers and his supposed lack of trustworthiness. But it wasn’t just the old McCarthy-esque guilt-by-association game that was going on. There was a violent escalation of rhetoric.
This was especially true (though not exclusively) of McCain’s running mate, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Palin charged that Obama “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.” She said Obama was “palling around with terrorists” (note the plural noun) and that he was “not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.”
It wasn’t just Palin. McCain did his part as well, telling a crowd, “We’ve all heard what he’s said. But it’s less clear what he’s done, or what he will do.” And by the time McCain asked the crowd “Who is the real Barack Obama?” it was no surprise that the raucous response he received was fueled with hate. “Treason!”, “Terrorist!”, “Kill him!”, “Off with his head”, as well as the uninhibited slinging of racial epithets became fixtures of McCain-Palin campaign rallies.
It may seem silly to compare a shooting spree in a public venue with election-year rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail. But it is not. These seemingly disparate incidents have a significant connection between them, in that they reflect one of the most troubling aspects of modern American politics: the positing of elimination as the solution to political disagreement.
The most important point, however, is this: This tendency is almost singularly peculiar to the American Right.
It’s important to be clear about one thing. This is not about “polarization.” It is easy to cast aspersions on the level of dysfunction and polarization in American politics. But if you are going to have two political parties, it makes sense for them to stand for distinctive things. Instead, this is about extremism – specifically, asymmetrical extremism within one major political party in American politics: the Republicans.
We’ve known for years that political extremism is largely a one-sided phenomenon. Since the 1970s, in fact, the Republican party has moved to the right much faster than Democrats have moved to the left. As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the Brookings Institution have described it, “Republicans have become a radical insurgency – ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of their political opposition.”
The chart below, taken from The Washington Post but derived from data from Kenneth Poole and Howard Rosenthal, political scientists who have developed the most-widely used score of ideology based on voting preferences, illustrates this clearly:
The data shows that, right around 1975, the Republican party sharply turned away from the center line and moved rapidly to the right, with no indication of turning back. While the data also indicates that the Democrats have moved slightly to the left, this shift can be explained as a function of the mass exodus of the conservative white southern wing (read: racists) who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Open Housing Act.
Figure 1 illustrates one way of measuring the problem – how far the Republican party has moved from the supposed “center.” Another way of looking at the issue is to measure the number of moderates (or centrists) in each party. Here’s another figure from the Poole-Rosenthal data, displaying the number of House members in each party who are not centrists:
This chart, perhaps more than any other, is clear evidence of the increased radicalization of the Republican party. It shows that nearly 90 percent of Republican House members are not politically moderate – that is, their ideological scores put them on the more extreme ends of the partisan scale. By contrast, 90 percent of Democratic House members are moderates.
None of this should be surprising.
No objective observer of American politics needs abstract political scores to know that the Republican party has become a front for ideological conservative extremism. Over the past seven years, President Obama has been willing – to his critics on the left, too willing – to compromise with Republicans. But Republicans have shunned dialogue and the democratic exchange of ideas in favor of the pursuit of outright elimination of the opposing side, either through suppression, exile, and ejection, or extermination. How many House Republicans voted for President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill? Zero. How many House Republicans voted for the Affordable Care Act? Zero.
And so on.
It’s not just limited to Congress. Conservative Republicans increasingly dominate state politics; the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court (even without the late Justice Antonin Scalia) are among the most conservative in the Court’s modern history; and Republican presidential hopefuls have gotten steadily more conservative, too.
Donald Trump’s takeover of the party is a fair summation of the recent history of the Republicans. His abhorrent positions vis-à-vis immigrants, political minorities, and virtually every other topic of importance to a presidential candidate is a reflection of all of the nasty sentiments that the Republican party has nurtured over the decades. Not to mention the violence at Trump’s campaign rallies against the supporters of his political opponents – violence which he has condoned and encouraged.
But it’s also telling that Sen. Ted Cruz, the man who even John McCain called a “wacko bird,” has come to represent the idea of sanity. After all, at the beginning of the campaign, Cruz came right out and advocated an ideological litmus test: “Every candidate’s going to come in front of you and say, ‘I’m the most conservative guy to ever live.’” But “talk is cheap.” Cruz insisted. “Show me where you stood up and fought.”
The radicalization of the Republican party is one of the most important political stories of our time.
But it is also deeply puzzling. Polls consistently show that major GOP positions – for example, its strident resistance to background checks for gun buyers – are not all that popular. And there has been nothing similar to the Republicans radicalization among “median voters” – people at the center of the ideological spectrum. In fact, on many issues, such as gay marriage, median voters have actually moved left. And yet, even when Americans seem less satisfied with the outcomes of increased Republican influence, the Republican party keeps heading right.
What the Republicans have been engaging in is, in short, a race to the base. And, thus far, they haven’t paid a price for their march to the right.
There has been no cost for extremism, no matter how dangerous that extremism can be.
The inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom continues to reinforce the pox-on-both-your-houses narrative. But as President Obama works his way through his final year in office, and as the 2016 election bears down on the country, it has never been clearer that pundits like Mann and Ornstein were right about the GOP and the asymmetrical blame the party deserves for the decline of our functioning government.
Reality is far less “fair and balanced.”
Featured Image Credit: DonkeyHotey on Flickr (via creative commons)