Commentary: Conservatives finally speaking out about their lunatic fringe

"At some point, you have to use the word 'crazy.' "

It will not surprise you to hear that the speaker is referring to extremists within the tea party movement. What might surprise you is that the speaker is Erick Erickson, editor-in-chief of RedState, a prominent conservative blog.

Erickson was recently quoted on Politico in a report about how he and other conservatives are attempting to distance their ideology and the Republican Party from the paranoid theorizing and loud, incoherent screaming that have recently passed for discourse on the political right. And of course, the darkly comic thing about it is that, less than a year ago, some conservatives were exulting over the tea parties, believing they brought needed energy to a movement demoralized by its 2008 shellacking at the polls. "The Republican comeback has begun," declared GOP chief Michael Steele.

What a difference a year makes. Or not.

Some of us after all, have argued all along that the tea parties were about as "conservative" -- insofar as that term has traditionally been understood -- as ladies night in a Castro Street bar. Indeed, some of us made the same point about George W. Bush, the putatively conservative president who nevertheless presided over an expansion of the federal government and of a federal entitlement program (Medicare), a costly war of choice in Iraq founded on a shifting rationale, and financial mismanagement that turned surplus into deficit seemingly overnight.

For at least the last decade, then, conservatism has not seemed particularly conservative -- a disconnect many of the ideology's adherents managed to ignore so long as it was useful to do so, i.e., so long as it played well at the ballot box. "Just win, baby" was their mantra; intellectual honesty, their casualty; and as a result, their ideology slid into -- here's that word again -- incoherence, taking American political discourse with it.

But in the tea party movement, some conservatives finally meet a cognitive disconnect they simply cannot bridge.

A recent New York Times profile found the tea party movement to be amorphous and largely without an organizing principle other than its anger toward government and fear of a supposedly imminent dictatorship. Beyond that, tea partiers are an unwieldy amalgam of tax haters, global warming holdouts, illegal immigration protesters, secessionists, gun rights advocates, white supremacists, militia types and conspiracy theorists, all banging their gongs at the same time.

Like the liberal noisemakers who follow the World Trade Organization around, their lack of message discipline renders them -- that word, yet again -- incoherent. Like them, they have yet to figure out that to protest everything is to protest nothing.

Make no mistake: Every movement or marginalized people has its fringe extremists who threaten to define the whole. Thus, moderate American Muslims are periodically required to rebuke Islamic terrorists, environmentalists are obligated to rebuff eco-terrorists and moderate African Americans are expected to reprove Louis Farrakhan.

But conservatives, outside of a few integrity-driven souls over the years, have not rushed to repudiate the crazies among them, even as the crazies have grown crazier and threatened to engulf the whole.

So it is welcome, albeit belated, news to hear Ned Ryun of American Majority telling Politico the right needs to stop providing a platform to its extremists, and to read columnist Michael Gerson speaking of the need to shove them to the margins, and to learn that Erickson has banned birthers -- i.e., people who persist in the asinine belief that President Obama was not born in the U.S.A. -- from his website.

"At some point, you have to use the word 'crazy,'" he says. And he's right, of course.

But that point came a long time ago.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.