The Urge to Purge Solves Nothing

Many prominent young bloggers say its time conservatives altered their fortunes and cast off those intellectual dead weights who stir up irrational fear. Time to throw off those whose intellectual bankruptcy has left the conservative movement with no credibility in the eyes of the American people.

No, they’re not calling for the removal of those writers and political leaders who told us that if we didn’t give the Treasury $700 billion to distribute to corporate America, the world as we know it would end, thus undermining free-market economics. Rather, the talk from young political guns Patrick Ruffini and Jon Henke has been about the need to purge WorldNetDaily’s Joseph Farah and the birthers. Ruffini called for the conservatives to bend it like William Buckley, who famously purged the John Birch Society from the conservative movement. Ruffini even calls for a return of “Buckleyite elite,” which will come after conservatives take the necessary steps to expel from their midst the rabble that believe in nutty conspiracies.

I’ve mixed feelings on Mr. Farah, and questioning the president’s country of origin is a waste of time. However, the calls for “purges” are wrongheaded for several reasons.

First is the issue of practicality. Mr. Buckley detailed his experience with the John Birch Society in an article for Commentary in 2008. Of his excoriation of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch, Buckley wrote of conservatives who gathered in Palm Beach to  plan a coordinated response to Welch’s kookiness: “The wound we Palm Beach plotters delivered to the John Birch Society proved fatal over time.”

One has to define “fatal” and “over time” quite loosely to say that his attack on the John Birch Society succeeded. In 1983 (twenty-one years after Buckley’s article), Congressman Lawrence McDonald (D-GA) became president of the John Birch Society. That a member of Congress was not only a member but the president of the organization suggests Buckley wasn’t nearly as successful as he thought. Indeed, the John Birch Society exists to this day.

True, it’s not as socially acceptable to be a member of the John Birch Society, but several Birch-like groups have come and gone over the years. The goal of purging all things perceived to be nutty is as impractical now as it was forty-seven years ago, if not more so in the age of the Internet.

Second is the question: who gets to define what the fringe is? Morton Blackwell writes: “Conservatives make a great mistake if they think: I'm as conservative as one can be and still be responsible. Anyone to the right of me is to that extent irresponsible.”

The question is not whether a political fringe exists, but what behavior and beliefs it constitutes. In a society where women wear floor-length skirts, a woman in an ankle-length skirt will be deemed inordinately immodest. As we define up what standards make people acceptable political allies, we find the fringe constantly defined to apply to more conservatives, particularly if we buy the left’s definition. Opponents of same-sex marriage are “homobigots,” opponents of abortion on demand are “anti-choice zealots,” and anyone who doesn’t believe in open borders and unlimited immigration is a “xenophobe.” Go down this road and pretty soon we’ll all be extremists.

Most importantly, “purges” are not the key to winning national elections. In his remembrance, Buckley wrote that, following the 1962 purge, “Barry Goldwater did not win the presidency.” This is akin to saying, “Custer didn’t do well at Little Big Horn.” Goldwater was obliterated by a 61-39 percent margin.