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 U.S. 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 as a third-party candidate, 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 less about the possibility that voters will have more than two choices on a ballot, and more about the promotion of a candidate who might disrupt the political center of either party. Matthews' apparent comfort with Crist's decision reflects not only this 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.
The special began by focusing on protesters who hold signs that liken President Obama to Adolf 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 Kennedys, the Right by families like the Bushes, and anyone outside this Washington-wide circle of elites is not only on the 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 Tea Partiers are so angry about, as they continue to agitate against the politics of old. 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 Sen. Joe McCarthy and the John Birch Society to today's grassroots conservatives and talk show 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. Matthews fails to mention that the paranoia of McCarthy and the John Birch Society was often born of a wider concern about the massive growth of the state in a post-New Deal America.
Today, there is widespread bipartisan consensus about the insolvency of 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, to which Social Security and Medicare contribute greatly, despite 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 the John Birchers were about the "danger" posed by the U.S. government?
Writing for Real Clear Politics, columnist E.J. Dionne notes the connection between yesterday's conservative populists and today's: "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 been uncharacteristically comfortable with a bloated federal government, something evident during the Nixon years, the budget-busting Reagan era, and, 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. Even though Matthews longs for the GOP of Nelson Rockefeller and Mitt Romney, more conservatives than ever do not; a more traditionally conservative and libertarian philosophy continues to re-emerge.
Goldwater once proclaimed that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." For Matthews and his fellow liberals, this statement sets a dangerous precedent. Perhaps it's time for the MSNBC host to realize that his own extremist defense of the status quo is not only a vice, but exceedingly dangerous.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.