One of the chief dangers of this, of course, is the rightward gravitational pull this exerts on the mainstream, dragging more and more conservatives into radical positions. The other, and perhaps more serious, problem is the way it enfranchises extremists, giving them real power in the political structure they might not have otherwise -- and, rather than mitigating their extremism, encouraging it.
Recent news from Washington has given us an up-close look at this phenomenon in action:
- Northwest groups seek data on Rove's role in water policy
Environmental and commercial fishing groups asked the White House yesterday to explain the role President Bush's top political aide played in developing water policy in the Northwest.
The request followed the disclosure that White House political adviser Karl Rove briefed dozens of political appointees at the Interior Department a year and a half ago about diverting water in the Klamath River in Oregon to help nearby farms.
Republican leaders in the area wanted to help the farmers, a key constituency.
The Interior Department increased the water supply to drought-stricken farmland several months later despite environmentalists' complaint that diverting water from the river would kill threatened coho salmon.
What the story neglects to mention, of course, is that the policy that Rove appears to have "persuaded" (read: ordered) the Interior appointees to carry out resulted in the deaths of 33,000 salmon on the Klamath, one of the worst fish kills in the history of the Pacific Coast.
Perhaps even more significant, these same officials may well have violated the law in carrying out Rove's directives (from Oct. 27, 2002):
The federal biologist who led the scientific review of splitting water between farmers and fish in the Klamath Basin, site of a massive salmon kill, is seeking whistle-blower protection, claiming his team was overruled in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
In a formal disclosure to be filed Monday with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Michael S. Kelly alleges his team's recommendations were rejected twice, under "political pressure," as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation imposed lower water levels than were scientifically justified as part of a 10-year water management plan.
Of course, the ever-timid Office of Special Counsel blew off the allegations, hiding behind the cover of the Bush administration's own report saying the cause of the fish kill couldn't be determined.
Why this isn't a scandal of at least modest proportions is beyond me. Certainly the biologist's accusations deserve a fresh hearing.
What is even more likely to fly under the radar, however, is the connection between right-wing extremists and mainstream conservatives in this case. Because the most strident voices agitating for the water policy ultimately adopted by Interior belonged to the Patriot movement and its cohorts. Indeed, it was apparent from the start that the Klamath issue was being exploited by the Patriots, and it continues to be so.
Consider, for example, this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report:
More than anything, though, the Klamath Falls protests fed the flames of far-right, antigovernment fervor. Militia activists, cursing the "U.S. Gestapo" in E-mails, volunteered to "fire the first shot at the feds." One poster on the hard-line Michigan Militia Corps Wolverine’s E-list wrote, "I know good and well that there are those of you who have access to airplanes and explosives. Common sense tells me that a nice little package dropped from the sky onto the gates that hold back the water will undoubtedly open the gates and let the water flow."
One man was arrested at the head gates for failing to appear in court to face illegal firearms charges; he claimed to be a "constitutional counselor" involved in "treason" charges brought in a pseudo-legal "common-law court" against Oregon public officials. In August, alerted by a series of Internet postings, convoys of antigovernment protesters made their way through Montana, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, California and Oregon and converged on Klamath Falls for a large "Freedom Day" protest.
Of course, as one might expect, this fish kill did little to help the handful of farmers it was meant to protect. Many of them are now anxious to trade their land back to the government. But in the meantime, the real bread-and-butter jobs in the Klamath -- the salmon fishing industry, providing some 4,000 family-wage jobs and $80 million a year to the region -- were severely trashed. Many of those businesses went belly-up along with the fish.
Of course, the Patriots and their mainstream cohorts now strenuously deny that the water plan killed the fish -- claims that, as usual, have been thoroughly debunked.
The recent revelations of involvement in this policy decision from the very upper echelons of the Bush administration, and the clear evidence that the choice was based on politics, not "sound science," are of course the most significant short-term issues related to this case.
But in the long term, Americans need to ask what the White House is doing by capitulating wholly to right-wing extremists who clearly did not represent the larger interests of working people in the Klamath Basin. And by capitulating to them, giving them real power.