The Rise of Political Extremism and the Decline of Decency

John Avlon discusses his new book about how the fringe is taking over politics.

By + More

With Barack Obama's election in 2008, voters sent a clear message about their desire to break with the polarized, play-to-the-base politics of the Bush era, says journalist John Avlon. Yet, in his new book, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, he says that just over a year into Obama's presidency, partisanship is worse than ever, and the extremes of the political spectrum are gaining more and more power. A senior political columnist for The Daily Beast and previously chief speechwriter for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Avlon argues that the cycle of hyperpartisanship needs to stop and that it's up to the nation's center majority to act. He recently chatted with U.S. News about the rise of the extremes and restoring decency in American politics. Excerpts:

What's a wingnut?

A wingnut is someone on the far right wing or far left wing. The telltale sign of a wingnut is that they always confuse partisanship with patriotism.

They've always existed, but why are more people now buying what they're selling?

We've always had cranks and conspiracy theorists with us. But I believe they've become more dangerous and more influential than ever. We've seen the rise of partisan media devolving back to that era when newspapers used to be owned by political parties, except now, they have national reach, through cable news and other outlets. The Internet is allowing us to self-segregate ourselves into separate political realities. It's become in some cases an incubator for extremism, where people who are like-minded can incite each other to greater heights all day.

Should we, as Americans, be afraid?

We should be concerned. We're already seeing the cost of using fear and hate to pump up hyperpartisanship. We've seen 10 congressmen receive death threats in the wake of the healthcare vote. The Southern Poverty Law Center put out a report showing a 300 percent increase in the number of militia groups in the first year of the Obama administration alone. We should be very aware of the forces we're playing with.

You discuss both the Obama derangement syndrome and the Bush derangement syndrome. Which has been worse?

It's part of a continuum. Whenever I interview someone at a protest carrying an "Obama is Hitler" sign, and I go up to ask to talk to them to see what they're thinking, invariably they've said, "Well, they started it. They called our president 'Hitler' and nobody complained." And the reality is that politics follows the lines of physics. Every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. And the extremes incite each other. What's especially frustrating to me is that we're talking about a relatively small group of people. There's a huge, untapped center in America that is frustrated with the agitated status quo. And, I think there's a real need to stand up.

So, did you write this book for the center?

Absolutely. I'm an independent. I'm a centrist. A new generation is arriving that has grown up with a multiplicity of choice in every aspect of their lives, and yet politics is the last place that they are told that they should be satisfied with a choice between brand A and brand B. It doesn't fit the way they think. It doesn't fit the way they live. If you look at most independent voters, they tend to be closer to the Republicans on economic issues and closer to the Democrats on social issues, and they hate the hyperpartisanship and dysfunction that's afflicting Washington. They want to see government work again.

If you're a centrist, why does your book spend more time developing the extremists on the right than those on the left?

I believe that the far right and the far left can be equally insane, but there's also no question that in the first year of the Obama administration, the far right has been far crazier. This book is about what happened in the first year of the Obama administration. It's about how hope turned into hate.

When discussing race, as you do in your chapter on "white minority politics," how are fear and hate related?