The fringe factor

May 11, 1995|By Kevin Phillips

Washington -- OKLAHOMA hasn't voted for a Democratic president since 1964 and probably won't for the rest of the century. Manhattan- or San Francisco-style liberalism doesn't flourish on the prairie or in the shadow of Tulsa oil rigs. For individuals linked to the far right to set off a bomb in Oklahoma City, striking at the core of Middle America, spotlights some new fault lines in the Republican coalition. The "wacko factor" is intensifying.

U.S. politics has just become far more complicated and, for conservative strategists, probably more difficult. President Clinton's chances of being re-elected have improved. Even if there are no more bombing tragedies, major weaknesses are now beginning to appear in the armor of right-wing organizations and stalwarts. The GOP is failing an old but critical test of U.S. politics: the need for a would-be majority to keep firm control of its fringe groups and radicals.

Consider the images now being used in conjunction with conservative agendas, heroes and predicaments: gun lobbies, assault rifles, private militias, Rush Limbaugh, religious-right, anti-Semitic conspiracy books and attacks on abortion clinics. Add to this national polls showing the new GOP House Speaker described as too extreme, formerly off-the-wall, flat-tax schemes that would wallop the middle class, and a budget-extremism that slashes popular middle-class programs. This is not a picture of mainstream politics; in fact, it is starting to look like the map of an ideological fever swamp.

During the past 25 years, more than a few voters have perceived the Democrats as hostile, in various ways, to Middle America. Now Republicans could stumble into a comparable position from the opposite side of the spectrum.

True, the Oklahoma City bombing does have major elements of cultural and political coincidence in where it happened and who did it. Other aspects, however, are less coincidental. The thrust of the right over the past decade -- and especially in the past year -- has been to heat up the climate in which these flames have burst forth. Liberals, to be sure, have piled up a lot of the now incendiary kindling -- from ever-expanding federal regulations to widespread insensitivity to small-town, small-business and prayer-book America. But the new "X factor" in U.S. politics is that the right could well come in for more of the blame.

Liberals and conservatives alike should consider the 1960s. Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson won a huge landslide in 1964 because GOP nominee Barry M. Goldwater appeared too radical -- too hawkish, too opposed to civil-rights legislation and too willing to tinker with Social Security.

But the landslide gave U.S. liberalism its first big political victory since 1948, and, suddenly, the whole national political landscape seemed to change. Liberals dusted off their two-decade-old wish list and sought to make it law. Not just civil rights, not just federal aid to education, but what became the Great Society -- including programs ranging from the War on Poverty to school busing.

But when race relations, the cities and then the Vietnam War became flash points, too many liberals turned to defending crime and violence -- and consorting with its perpetrators. Democratic fringe groups and radicals were breaking loose.

For all the considerable responsibility that conservatives bore for previous racial segregation and the decline of the cities, when actual violence broke out -- the attacks on downtown shopping districts, on homeowners, on government labs and college administration buildings -- voters perceived such episodes, not unfairly, as encouraged by liberals.

This did not go unnoticed by ordinary Americans: The "social issue" high ground that had been Democratic in 1964 -- when much of the North revolted against the GOP over civil rights -- switched parties with a vengeance in 1968. The era of GOP presidents, elected, in part, to suppress crime and violence, began.

Now, however, the social-issue high ground, including law and order, could be about to flip again. Like the Democrats of 30 years ago, the Republicans -- convinced a favorable political watershed is developing after their big win in November -- have dug out their two-decade-old ideological wish list. Along with some needed reforms, it includes numerous excesses, as well as favors for radical-linked groups on the conservative fringe. The extent to which some of this permissiveness involves firearms and violence is putting the GOP's credibility on law and order at issue.

However, just as the rising profile of the activist left didn't signal an overall leftward trend in the '60s and early '70s, conservatives today may be deceiving themselves in a similar fashion. Unless U.S. politics is about to come totally unglued, the swing to the right in 1994, having pushed its fringes and excesses into the spotlight, is about to create its counterforce.

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