One of the ways radicals deal with their lack of influence is by redefining what their goals are from political success to personal purity. This redefinition is rarely explicit – nobody wants to be the person who openly says, “It doesn’t matter if we win elections” – but is still entrenched inside radical mentality.
The most familiar example to liberals is, of course, Green Party voters, and by extension, Americans who vote third-party in general. But examples from the Green, Libertarian, Socialist, and Constitution Parties aren’t that significant, because none of those parties has enough voters to make a serious difference anyway, except in very close elections.
A more instructive example would be James Dobson, who through his insistence on personal purity may be the best thing to happen to American secularists since William Jennings Bryan. Christian fundamentalists are at their most effective when they can switch between the two parties, by having a significant camp in each. Then if the Republicans are being too soft on gays Dobson can tell them, “There are a lot of Christian voters there who might opt to support Jim Wallis instead,” and if the Democrats try pushing forward gay rights then Wallis can similarly threaten them.
However, Dobson seems to make it his personal mission to muzzle any emerging Christian left. It doesn’t matter that Wallis is center-shifting the Democrats to the right on abortion and gay rights; because Wallis’s stated intentions include the adoption of left-wing economics, Dobson does his best to damage his political ambitions.
Another example of personal purity at work is the War on Christmas. Amanda’s post about the anti-Semitic angle of the anti-“Happy Holidays” hysteria is instructive. For decades, the religious right has been courting Jews as a way of pretending not to be theocratic and avoiding accusations of anti-Semitism. It needs its Dennis Pragers, who will say that it’s not supremacist because it accommodates one religious minority.
While I don’t think the intention behind the War on Christmas meme was to purge the cultural right of Jews, this seems to be one of its consequences. Liberal Jews, who have been key in organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP, have never bought into the right’s “We love Jews” rhetoric, but the Anti-Defamation League could be an ally in pushing neo-conservative foreign policy forward.
On the other hand, the religious right is still clinging to personal purity when it comes to foreign policy. It could try healing its rift with paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan by pointing out to the fact that it’s becoming more anti-Semitic, but it doesn’t, because its leaders are obsessed with maintaining a neo-conservative foreign policy consensus within the movement.
Meanwhile, mainstream conservatives do try remaining politically effective by appealing to different groups. It doesn’t always work, as the recent Republican hiccups about immigration show, but at least the conception that personal integrity is more important than political effectiveness is absent. Dobson has more influence than Nader – he got one Supreme Court Justice on the bench more than him – but he has the same mentality: moderation is evil, compromise is for the weak, and anyone who veers from the party line must be silenced regardless of the political ramifications.