Are Republicans crazy?

Todd Henderson —  22 December 2009

My brilliant and beloved colleague Brian Leiter refers to Republican voters as “sociopaths, villains, religious zealots, and crazies.” There is much to this – the 50 percent or so of the voting population that traditionally vote for the GOP includes its fair share of misinformed nuts. But is there any reason to believe that Republicans have a monopoly on “crazies”? I highly doubt it; I suspect Democrats have some voters and politicians that they would rather not roll out as poster children for the cause. No political party is perfect or even particularly appealing, and pretending that one’s favored side has cornered the market on high mindedness, truth, or justice is just posturing. We must judge voters, politicians, and parties not by their composition, their intentions, or their ideals but by the outcomes they produce.

The problem with politics today isn’t that Republicans are idiots or Democrats are socialists; the problem may be democracy. H.L. Mencken, a wise fellow if there ever was one, described the problem thus:

Politics, under democracy resolves itself into impossible alternatives. Whatever the label on the parties, or the war cries issuing from the demagogues who lead them, the practical choice is between the plutocracy on the one side and a rabble of preposterous impossibilists on the other.

Mencken went on to argue that what we need beyond anything is “a party of liberty.” Hear, hear! I will gladly leave behind the crazies and villains in both parties for a party that believes in freedom and liberty. Let the mantra be that of Reason magazine: free minds & free markets, with a dose of limited government, lower taxes, less regulation, and personal responsibility. When such a party starts, I’ll be a member. Until then, I’ll continue to be one of Leiter’s crazies.

8 responses to Are Republicans crazy?


    Well, we have probably hit the point of vanishing returns, but here’s one final try:

    Mr. Ivey: I regret if my “caustic tone” seemed disproportioantely matched to yours, but without the benefit of aural and visual cues, it is often hard to gauge these matters. I think it would be wise to drop the concern with “name-calling,” since names are, after all, words with descriptive and referential content, and so they are either apt or not. When Todd calls Krugman a “partisan hack,” he has called him a name, but the only relevant question is whether it is appropriate, i.e., whether the name correctly describes Krugman (he is certainly partisan, but Todd’s reasoning as to why he was a ‘hack’ did not strike me at least as very persuasive). When Todd employs the familiar rhetorical device of deflecting rational criticism of the Bush Administration by characterizing the purveyors as in the grips of “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” he has used a name to characterize the critics, but the pertinent objection to that is not that it is a name (one with metaphorical, rather than literal, semantic content of course) but that it is inapt.

    I am unclear as to what I said that is incompatible with the hypothesis that those who support Republicans do so because of “their belief that it is their best estimate of how to improve social welfare.” As we know from even a casual study of history, large numbers of those who supported Stalin, Mao, and Pinochet–just to take three relatively uncontroversial examples–did so because they thought these leaders improved the social welfare. These supporters were also mistaken. The premise of my comments was that someone who so supported the current incarnation of the Republican Party would also have made a mistake (perhaps a non-culpable one, it varies from case to case). My comment was addressed to the possible grounds or causes of such a mistake–ignorance of pertinent facts is an obvious candidate, but so too excessive confidence in markets or unreasonable belief in the importance of unregulated markets relative to other issues might also explain such a mistake. The real point of dispute, I take it, is about whether or not there is a mistake here.

    Although I have a low opinion of the Democratic Party, I do not think there is any parity of extremism, venality or irrationality between them and the Republicans–in some cases, this is because of the degree of irrationality, in other cases, becuase the irrational fringe is far more central in the case of the Republicans than in the case of the Democrats. But this is a matter that is probably more fruitfully discussed in person and with reference to particular examples, so I won’t belabor it here.


    Not sure how I got cast as the defender of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, since I did not mention or allude to them and Prof. Leiter had previously stated he was referring to Republican politicians. If he now wants to change the subject and focus on extremist pundits, I can simply point to equally extreme folks on the Left, as Prof. Henderson does.

    But this turn in the conversation merely underscores my original point, which is that name-calling and ad hominem rhetoric detract from the seriousness of your argument, allowing readers to (rightfully) ignore your words as those of an overzealous partisan. And that does you no good, especially if you have otherwise valid points to make.

    I don’t think I’ve said anything to merit your oddly caustic response and, like the name-calling in first comment, it detracts from whatever larger point you are trying to make.


    I’m deeply puzzled by this dialogue. There was one central point to my first post: politicians of both stripes operate within a system of government that causes them to deviate from what I believe is the optimal allocation of power within our society. I see neither party as especially wise or good, and am shocked that anyone thinks otherwise. Brian’s recent quote from Prof. Krugman, about the lunatic fringe of the Republican party not being alienated by the party, falls into this category. Really, Prof. Krugman? You think it is the Republican party that gives the crazies in its party a home or a microphone? Come on. Were you living under a rock for the 8 years of the Bush Jr. administration? How about the Reagan years? Were not the fringe elements of the Democrat party out in force talking about Reagan’s desire to kill us all in nuclear war or Bush’s eavesdropping on everyone’s cell phones and shredding the Constitution or Republican attempts to put kids on the streets, steal retirement funds from old people, and line the pocket of Wall Street bankers? Or how about today? Is Speaker Pelosi your idea of a moderate Democrat? Maxine Waters? Keith Olberman? How about former White House officials Van Jones? Anita Dunn? Personally, I think the stories about Obama’s crazies are just as silly as those by people with Bush Derangement Syndrome (or, maybe we should call it, Republican Derangement Syndrome?). I am not an apologist for Republicans, the Republican party, or any particular politician. I am just amazed when otherwise intelligent people are. Is it really the case that the only justifications for voting for McCain or any other Republicans are: “ignorance,” “religion,” or “free-market utopianism”? Wouldn’t I be overly simplistic if I said the only reason for voting for Democrats is “ignorance,” “Robin Hoodism” or “government uptopianism”? There are lots of rational reasons to vote for Democrats, and some of the smartest and most thoughtful people I know do so all the time. I would never attribute their doing so to anything other than their belief that it is their best estimate of how to improve social welfare. To reiterate my point from above, I just believe that more distrust of politicians and political parties would be a healthy thing. Our political discourse today is too much in the spirit of finger pointing and name calling. Why can’t we recognize that politics is incapable of resolving our most fundamental problems and disagreements?


    As it happens, Todd’s favorite ‘partisan hack’ (ouch!) Paul Krugman had an apt line yesterday regarding our topic du jour, regarding opponents of health care reform:

    “First, there’s the crazy right, the tea party and death panel people — a lunatic fringe that is no longer a fringe but has moved into the heart of the Republican Party. In the past, there was a general understanding, a sort of implicit clause in the rules of American politics, that major parties would at least pretend to distance themselves from irrational extremists. But those rules are no longer operative. No, Virginia, at this point there is no sanity clause.”

    Meanwhile, Geoffrey Manne has caught me out: I admit I do not proofread my comments on blogs! In the interest of clarity, let me repeat that I think many people who vote for Republicans do so for non-culpable reasons, whether ignorance, or religion, or, as in Todd’s case, a kind of free-market utopianism. I do think if American libertarians weren’t such monomaniacs about markets, and were more intersetd in liberty and human well-being, they couldn’t possibly say silly things like the Ds are as bad as the Rs. And I’m with Todd, we must judge parties by the outcomes they produce. That’s what prompted my original comments.


    Not to pick nits, but I thought it was the “elected representatives and policies” who were sociopaths, etc. But now we learn that it’s Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, too. I’m not sure I disagree with the application of the epithets (although I must confess to knowing next to nothing about Glenn Beck, never having watched more than a linked you tube tidbit or two), but which is it?

    But either way, I do think the libertarians notice–and care. I do, anyway. But I think Todd’s point is that it’s not enough to call the Rs all those names because to most of us libertarians, the Ds are just as bad (and in some important overlapping ways–certainly on the villainy count). So yes, a R return to power would by awful. About as awful as the Ds remaining in power.


    Good for you Clegg, I’m sure everyone will now take you seriously.

    There is no reason to think that just because the United States has two viable political parties that both of them must represent positions and views that are civilized or sane. Run-of-the-mill political corruption was no part of my concern–that’s common in both parties. Nor was I assuming, as you apparently think, that the Democrats are models of intellectual or moral probity. (Todd, I’m sure, knows what I think of them.)

    It is you, Mr. Ivey, who is trapped in an echo chamber. In the rest of the civilized world, describing the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Mitch McConnell as soicopaths, villains, crazies, and religiosu zealots is considered quite polite. You will notice that Professor Henderson wanted nothing to do with those folks either.


    Prof. Leiter, you cannot expect to be taken seriously using terms like “sociopath” or “villain,” not to mention “crazy,” to refer to those whose policy positions differ from your own. Or, if you do expect to be taken seriously, it might be because you are trapped in an echo chamber of others whose ideas and policies mirror your own. I would hope that were not the case, teaching as you do at my alma mater. And, indeed, I see that Prof. Henderson called you on it, though he was being extremely gentle.

    I wonder, for example, if you would think it fair to label the Democrats “villains” because of the actions of people like William Jefferson, Rod Blagojovich and Eliot Spitzer?

    Personally, I feel no need to suggest that either party has a special claim on bad people. Bad ideas? Well, now, reasonable minds can certainly disagree on that point. But you do yourself and your arguments no favors when you dehumanize and denigrate your political opponents rather than argue against their ideas.


    I was talking about the elected representatives and the policies, not the voters. Voters are a mixed bag of mixed motives everywhere I suppose. The rest of your post suggests you fall into the parenthetical at the end of my comment.