Jonathan Chait

Radicalism Is Not A Gaffe

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The most important macro-development of the last thirty years of American politics is that organized conservatism, once an opposition movement that existed mostly outside of mainstream politics, captured the Republican Party in toto. The interesting micro development of the last two years is that the party is starting to be infiltrated by figures who come out of smaller and even more ideologically radical subcultures -- candidates like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle. (Jason Zengerle has a fantastic story in TNR on Paul's ideology.) The news media is doing a poor job of explaining this trend, in part because it insists upon viewing this new brand of radicalism through the lens of a "gaffe" -- Rand Paul won't support the Civil Rights Act! -- rather than explaining it in ideological terms.

For instance, Ron Bonjean of U.S. News says that Harry Reid should be careful about attacking his opponent, Sharron Angle, because Reid has said impolitic things himself:

This is a dangerous road for Reid’s campaign to follow since the majority leader seems addicted to making high profile gaffes. It feels like it was just yesterday that Reid called President Obama a “light skinned” African American who lacked a “Negro” dialect except when he decided to use one. Another such moment came when he praised the opening of the Capitol Hill Visitors Center and said, “In the summer because of the heat and high humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. It may be descriptive but it's true.” Angle has made some extreme statements as well that will also be used against her. Just imagine the televised debates with both sides throwing boomerangs of rhetorical screw-ups at each other.

This is a perfect example of a kind of pathology that afflicts journalistic thinking. "Gaffes" are simply any impolitic statement. I recently quoted Michael Kinsley's famous column on gaffes, but I'll quote a line again: "If necessary, journalists can take a significant fact such as Jesse Jackson's continuing embrace of the repellent Louis Farrakhan--drain it of all its moral implications, and turn it into a gaffe."

To the political journalist, a gaffe is any impolitic statement. But, of course, Sharron Angle hasn't committed "rhetorical screw-ups." She has made numerous expressions of a lunatic worldview.

Update: Bonjean is a former Republican spokesman, not a news reporter.

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