Joe Klein on the GOP: “How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? … How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?”

[I’d love readers answers to the two headline questions posed by Klein. ]

death panels illo

When I get back from vacation, I’ll blog at length about what the White House’s dreadful messaging on health care says about the likelihood they’ll improve their dreadful messaging on the climate and clean energy bill.

But Time magazine’s Joe Klein — a generally moderate/centrist columnist — has written perhaps the definitive piece on what the health reform “debate” says about the Republican establishment, in a piece titled, “The GOP Has Become a Party of Nihilists.”  As Wikipedia explains:

Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist, and subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or to logically prefer one action over another.

I have previously made this point about the willful immorality of beltway conservatives/Republicans on climate change:

Klein shows it is a broader phenomenon.  I’ll excerpt him at length since the GOP scorched-earth strategy on healthcare certainly foreshadows the fall debate we’ll see on climate:

… Given the heinous dust that’s been raised, it seems likely that end-of-life counseling will be dropped from the health-reform legislation. But that’s a small point, compared with the larger issue that has clouded this summer:  How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? And another question: How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?

I’m not going to try. I’ve written countless “Democrats in Disarray” stories over the years and been critical of the left on numerous issues in the past. This year, the liberal insistence on a marginally relevant public option has been a tactical mistake that has enabled the right’s “government takeover” disinformation jihad. There have been times when Democrats have run demagogic scare campaigns on issues like Social Security and Medicare. There are more than a few Democrats who believe, in practice, that government should be run for the benefit of government employees’ unions. There are Democrats who are so solicitous of civil liberties that they would undermine legitimate covert intelligence collection. There are others who mistrust the use of military power under almost any circumstances. But these are policy differences, matters of substance. The most liberal members of the Democratic caucus “” Senator Russ Feingold in the Senate, Representative Dennis Kucinich in the House, to name two “” are honorable public servants who make their arguments based on facts. They don’t retail outright lies. Hyperbole and distortion certainly exist on the left, but they are a minor chord in the Democratic Party.

It is a very different story among Republicans. To be sure, there are honorable conservatives, trying to do the right thing. There is a legitimate, if wildly improbable, fear that Obama’s plan will start a process that will end with a health-care system entirely controlled by the government. There are conservatives “” Senator Lamar Alexander, Representative Mike Pence, among many others “” who make their arguments based on facts. But they have been overwhelmed by nihilists and hypocrites more interested in destroying the opposition and gaining power than in the public weal. The philosophically supple party that existed as recently as George H.W. Bush’s presidency has been obliterated. The party’s putative intellectuals “” people like the Weekly Standard‘s William Kristol “” are prosaic tacticians who make precious few substantive arguments but oppose health-care reform mostly because passage would help Barack Obama’s political prospects. In 1993, when the Clintons tried health-care reform, the Republican John Chafee offered a creative (in fact, superior) alternative “” which Kristol quashed with his famous “Don’t Help Clinton” fax to the troops. There is no Republican health-care alternative in 2009. The same people who rail against a government takeover of health care tried to enforce a government takeover of Terri Schiavo’s end-of-life decisions. And when Palin floated the “death panel” canard, the number of prominent Republicans who rose up to call her out could be counted on one hand.

A striking example of the prevailing cravenness was Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who has authored end-of-life counseling provisions and told the Washington Post that comparing such counseling to euthanasia was nuts “” but then quickly retreated when he realized that he had sided with the reality-based community against his Rush Limbaugh-led party. Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner for President according to most polls, actually created a universal-health-care plan in Massachusetts that looks very much like the proposed Obamacare, but he spends much of his time trying to fudge the similarities and was AWOL on the “death panels.” Why are these men so reluctant to be rational in public?

An argument can be made that this is nothing new. Dwight Eisenhower tiptoed around Joe McCarthy. Obama reminded an audience in Colorado that opponents of Social Security in the 1930s “said that everybody was going to have to wear dog tags and that this was a plot for the government to keep track of everybody … These struggles have always boiled down to a contest between hope and fear.” True enough. There was McCarthyism in the 1950s, the John Birch Society in the 1960s. But there was a difference in those times: the crazies were a faction “” often a powerful faction “” of the Republican Party, but they didn’t run it. The neofascist Father Coughlin had a huge radio audience in the 1930s, but he didn’t have the power to control and silence the elected leaders of the party that Limbaugh “” who, if not the party’s leader, is certainly the most powerful Republican extant “” does now. Until recently, the Republican Party contained a strong moderate wing. It was a Republican, the lawyer Joseph Welch, who delivered the coup de gr¢ce to Senator McCarthy when he said, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Where is the Republican who would dare say that to Rush Limbaugh, who has compared the President of the United States to Adolf Hitler?

This is a difficult situation for the President. Cynicism about government is always easy, even if it now seems apparent that it was government action “” by both Obama and, yes, George W. Bush “” that prevented a reprise of the Great Depression. I watched Obama as he traveled the Rocky Mountain West, holding health-care forums, trying to lance the boil by eliciting questions from the irrational minority that had pulverized the public forums held by lesser pols. He would search the crowds for a first-class nutter who might challenge him on “death panels,” but he was constantly disappointed. In Colorado, he locked in on an angry-looking fellow in a teal T shirt “” but the guy’s fury was directed at the right-wing disinformation campaign. Obama seemed to sag. He had to bring up the “death panels” himself.

This may tell us something about the actual state of play on health care: the nutters are a tiny minority; the Republicans are curling themselves into a tight, white, extremist bubble “” but there may be enough of them raising dust to render creative public policy impossible. Some righteous anger seems called for, but that’s not Obama’s style. He will have to come up with something, though “” and he will have to do it without the tiniest scintilla of help from the Republican Party.

Same goes for actual state of play on climate change, except failure on that legislation will bring all of humanity GOP-style annihilation and a literally scorched Earth.

[For readers of the post-“Happy Days” generation, “jumped the shark” denoted the point “at which the characters or plot veer into a ridiculous, out-of-the-ordinary storyline.”]

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23 Responses to Joe Klein on the GOP: “How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? … How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?”

  1. Jeff Huggins says:

    Considerations and Answers

    “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” — Thomas Jefferson

    “. . . but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.” — George Orwell, “1984”

    “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” — Aldous Huxley

    “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” — Albert Einstein

    “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.” — Machiavelli (probably a paraphrase)

    “So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.” — Bob Dylan, “All Along The Watchtower”

  2. paulm says:

    “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”

    Thomas Jefferson quotes

  3. “jumped the shark”
    What does that mean?

  4. Mike#22 says:

    I guess we are seeing overshoot in this political ecology.

    “the nutters…are curling themselves into a tight, white, extremist bubble” and are very comfortable speaking at public meetings. Profile: white church goers (not that there is a single thing wrong with that, on average)

    A week or two ago, the PR operatives must have been in heaven–now, they are watching their backs, waiting for the inevitable.

    What goes around, comes around.

  5. Mike#22 says:

    Jumped the Shark, had to look that up myself. Didn’t have TV at school.

  6. I am not sure that a party overrun by nihilists really wants to sustain democracy. Rather it appears to preach a no government anarchy.

    And as for journalistic impartiality, that really cannot work in advertiser supported news media, don’t you think?

  7. paulm says:

    White church goers should be amongst the 1st to support the health bill. Such caring folk.

  8. Jeff Huggins says:

    Can Journalistic Impartiality and Effectiveness Work in Advertiser-Supported News Media?

    Good question, Richard.

    Here’s a bit of a timely and transparent test:

    * There is a time window of less than four months between now and Copenhagen, and much less of a window between now and when the Senate begins to focus on climate and energy legislation.

    * ExxonMobil is the largest and most profitable company in the U.S. and is one of the largest advertisers in The New York Times.

    * They (ExxonMobil) have been sharing their narrow, confusing, and misleading “side” of the story in The New York Times, voluminously, including double-page spreads and also frequent advertorials on the front page itself.

    * Yet, as any analysis of the matter will show, very clearly, The New York Times has hardly made a “peep” to clarify the same matters, provide the straight story to the public, and shed light on ExxonMobil itself.

    * I’ve recently sent an examination of ExxonMobil (of published statistics from its financial and operating reports; Rex Tillerson speeches and comments; published news reports; R&D spending; employment figures; statements to Congress; and etc. etc.) to a number of folks at The NY Times, including Andrew Revkin, Jad Mouawad, Paul Krugman, and Thomas Friedman, as well as to a number of other folks in the media, at some leading schools of journalism, and at a number of climate-oriented causes. I’ve also sent the packet to Joe, to Sharon Begley (Newsweek), to Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker), to Curtis Brainard (Columbia Journalism Review), to Rachel Maddow, to Tom Yellin (The Documentary Group), and so on.

    We will all be able to see, in print, how well The New York Times and the broader media cover the matters of big oil, ExxonMobil, oil itself, the public misinformation campaigns, and so forth, in the coming weeks. The present circumstances create a huge, valid, and time-constrained (as well as scary!) experiment regarding the effectiveness, accuracy, and courage of our mainstream media. Results will be plain for all to see. Will the media give the full straight scoop, energetically and effectively, and prominently, to the public? Or will they (negligently and irresponsibly) shy away from the task or put these matters on page 13?

    One of the things we can do is to Demand excellent, clear, and appropriately voluminous coverage of these things — Big Oil, ExxonMobil, Big Coal, and etc. My advice is, to Demand it! The more people, the better. Then we will see how well the media come through.

    (By the way, Bill Keller (NY Times) is the son of a former Chairman and CEO of Chevron, the late George Keller. Mr. Keller (George) was the Chairman when I was a researcher and engineer at Chevron, in the early 1980s. The Times should be providing the straightforward, penetrating, and clear story on the oil/etc. issues to the public, energetically and effectively. The stakes are high. There wouldn’t be any responsible excuses for doing anything less.)

    Be Well,


  9. David B. Benson says:

    Off-topic, but I recently read a cool idea: when power is inexpensive, deep freeze big freezing plants so those can run on the extra coolth during hours of expenive power. Ideal for both solar and wind.

    Similarly, only run big power users such as Portland cement makers during hours of low demand. Not sure that will actually work out.

  10. ecostew says:

    Fact is that Rs/denialists are lying to gain political advantage in the AGW debate as well as health care.

  11. BBHY says:

    The modern GOP is certainly not fascist in the strict definition of the word, but they seem to have adopted certain fascist aspects, while rejecting others.

    With thanks to Wikipedia:

    “Fascism, pronounced /ˈfæʃɪzəm/, comprises a radical and authoritarian nationalist political ideology and a corporatist economic ideology.”

    The GOP is might have some radical and authoritarian aspects, but they are most certainly corporatist.

    “Fascists believe that nations and/or races are in perpetual conflict…”

    Sounds a lot like the “perpetual state of war” as perfected by the “W” administration.

    “Fascists advocate the creation of a single-party state”

    Please refer to Carl Roves “Permanent Republican Majority” plan. Glad that didn’t work out, although even with the Dem majority, the GOP still seems to be calling many if not most of the shots in Congress.

    “Fascist governments forbid and suppress criticism and opposition to the government and the fascist movement”

    Oh yeah, that’s our GOP! Please refer to Rush, Savage, Palin, Beck, the birthers, deathers, deniers, etc. They are all about suppressing and drowning out any views other than their own.

    “Fascism opposes class conflict, blames capitalist liberal democracies for its creation…”

    GOP: Increasing taxes on the rich is always presented as “class warfare”, sponsored by those evil liberals. (But not capitalist liberals, just liberals.) The GOP stands in favor of capitalism, while “liberals” are said to be anti-capitalists.

    “In the economic sphere, many fascist leaders have claimed to support a “Third Way” in economic policy, which they believed superior to both the rampant individualism of unrestrained capitalism and the severe control of state communism.[10][11] This was to be achieved by establishing significant government control over business and labour (Mussolini called his nation’s system “the corporate state”).”

    GOP talks a lot about “unrestrained capitalism” as being the ideal, but in practice they usually promote corporate welfare. Collect taxes from the poor, and give it to the corporations. Instead of government control over business, they have turned it around to have business control over government. (Also, business control over labor)

    I recently read a book about the alleged Business Plot to overthrow FDR back in the thirties. What struck me is that business has now actually achieved virtually all of the objectives of the plot, but without an actual coup. They just did it bit by bit, slowly enough that people came to accept each incremental change as the normal state of things.

  12. PeterW says:

    I’m sorry Joe but Klein is only a “centrist” in the screwed up Washington Media view of the world. He was a cheerleader for Iraq long after the lies were exposed. Look at the lengths he takes to compliment Bush in this piece.

    Quite frankly if America listened to Feingold and Kucinich, and not to blowhards like Klein, we would be in a much better situation with regards to Global Heating.

    But logic never really matters much to Klein and the MSM.

    [JR: But that’s why he is a centrist. A kind of DLC type. I’m not using the word in any favorable sense. Reality is progressive, but the country isn’t.]

  13. Roger says:

    Off topic, Joe, it was a pleasure to meet you, and have an opportunity to chat with you, following your excellent talk in Portland on Tuesday.

    You should consider speaking more often, especially to larger groups, in order to get the word out to more people. As you noted, in response to your question, only a handful of listeners were readers of your blog.

    Please let me know if you’d consider addressing a larger group in Boston some time. I’m sure we could attract a large crowd through our network, and that of MCAN, the Massachusetts Climate Action Network.

  14. Mike D says:


    “Jumped the shark” is a modern expression indicating that something has gone on way too long, has nothing new to contribute and has devolved into self-parody. You can usually identify a single event in retrospect, like “This was the point when X jumped the shark.” It comes from an episode of Happy Days where Fonzi jumped a shark on waterskis, generally considered the beginning of the end of that show. In my opinion the record for shark-jumping is held by Indiana Jones 4, which jumped the shark 27 times over the course of the movie by my count.

  15. Roger says:

    Jeff, Kudos on your above-described project. I hope you’ll see something published as a result, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. If there’s an area where today’s media excels, it is in selective ignorance.

    One key example of this is on the countless occasions where the media will report on exciting “wild weather” or a record number of wildfires–both being scientifically well-known harbingers of climate change–yet never mention the idea that climate change could, maybe, be a factor.

  16. max says:

    Joe Klein gives the media a pass in his piece, but the media are complicit in allowing the Republicans to spout their lies.

  17. Magnus W says:

    This seems relevant:

    “In Italy one man only has kept the domination of the image over three entire decades. As a TV-magnate and then as Presidente, Silvio Berlusconi has created a perfect system of TV-entertainment and politics.”

  18. Way OT:

    The reverse corrollary to jumping the shark is Growing the Beard… Referring to shows that improve immeasurably after some television event. In this case, the second season of Star Trek TNG when Riker grew his… and many of us found something worth watching.

  19. Chris Winter says:

    Joe Klein asks: “How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists?”

    Ridicule generally helps — especially when they help out by making themselves ridiculous. The majority of the public retains its common sense and will not long tolerate the sort of demagoguery the mouthpieces of the GOP are spewing now.

    You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

    Who was it who said that…? Oh, yes; it was our first Republican president.

  20. Lewis says:

    How dow you maintain a democracy when one of the parties has been overrun by nihilists?

    I’m not sure how you get people to understand that what they are advocating is counter to the other things they advocate for. Cognitive dissonance is a tough egg to crack. How about:

    Creating a new party with genuine centrist ideas and advocacy of facts over ideology in policy. Frankly aside from his climate action advocacy I found Obama against as many things I believe in as McCain. The democrats’ continued parroting of the ‘wage gap’ leaps to mind.

    Continue to point out how their advocacy of something will create more of something they are more strongly against. For example: how the inevitable droughts and shortages will cause more government intervention into all things.

    On the other question, “How to you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality…?”

    The media/journalists are not supposed to be impartial, they are supposed to be on the side of FACT. If the is supplying facts no illusion exists. Facts have no party affliation.

  21. Peter Sergienko says:

    I’m way late to this one, but I guess I disagree with the premise of Klein’s article or perhaps how he’s using the term nihilism.

    Lying, cheating, manipulation, and illegal conduct, for example, can be employed deliberately as tactics and are certainly not values. I think the political class has learned through experience, with some notable exceptions of course, that the benefits of immoral tactics often outweigh the consequences of getting caught. Political actors who engage in immoral behavior, if caught, frequently say the ends justify the means. And, in politics, an end for a politician or an activist is frequently the protection of a value or belief.

    To the extent that there is a cohesive and functional GOP core, I think it is organized as an opposition party around these tactics and around the core conservative value of free markets, which can be and is pulled out in opposition to virtually any imaginable governmental action. Free markets are also touted as an ultimate value of our society that must be protected at high cost, expressly or implicitly up to and including the destruction of the environment. That GOP leaders don’t feel any need as individuals and as politicians to distance themselves from immoral tactics says a lot about our political culture right now.

    Ultimately, I think of conservative actors opposing actions to address greenhouse gas emission problems more as “Greenlanders” than nihilists. As Jared Diamond noted in “Collapse,” sometimes societies will go extinct because they’ll chose to honor their values instead of adapting them to their environment. Based on many remarkable statements from ordinary people in connection with the health care debate, there are plenty of folks who are apparently willing to die or suffer great hardship for their values even though change and a minor adaptation of values is a readily available alternative. This type of martyrdom, especially given its possible religious underpinnings in our culture, worries me more than tactical GOP or conservative nihilism.

    With regard to Klein’s ultimate questions, our republican, dualist (two parties hold power and govern somewhere near the perceived center) system of government hasn’t been functioning particularly well (i.e., it has been demonstrably incapable of addressing our most serious and pressing problems appropriately) since long before the Obama presidency. A GOP that is “for” something and that engages in honest debate might help, but, substantively, our values and priorities seem far too polarized for productive compromise even if immoral tactics are cast aside. As for journalism, this blog is one example among many that does call out immoral tactics and labels them for what they are. This is an essential component of our constitutional system. The mainstream media needs to do the same.

  22. Bob Wright says:

    Someone told me last night he is signed up to take a bus to DC and protest. It will be one of at least 500 buses. When asked what he would be protesting, the response was “Health Care, Cap and Trade, and all that other crap”. The Dittoheads are energized.

  23. Robert says:

    I second Post 13’s memo as is show below! Boston awaits Joe’s presentation! Maybe on the 24th of October!

    “Please let me know if you’d consider addressing a larger group in Boston some time.”

    Let Truth be Spoken!