It will never die down.
If you're familiar with energy policy, you might have run into the term, "peak oil." Simply put, it refers to a hypothetical time at which global oil production reaches its zenith and subsequently enters a period of irreversible decline as proven resources are depleted faster than new discoveries can be made and brought into production. It has long been speculated that when peak oil occurs (and there is significant debate
about exactly when that will happen), there will be an increased proliferation of research and investment into alternatives to petroleum-based fuels as cost and lack of availability make such investments more prudent from the point of view of both finances and environmental stewardship.
Many in the hydrocarbon industry, of course, believe that peak oil is a myth, that new discoveries and new extraction technologies will supersede the extraction limits on which the idea of peak oil was based in the first place, and the global oil supply will continue on unabated, with scarcity an irrelevant consideration for a clean energy future.
But what does peak oil have to do with right-wing conspiracy theorists and their increasingly outlandish effect on the American political landscape? The analogy is actually fairly apt. Follow below the fold for more.
The political movement known as the tea party and its media arm at Fox News have consistently taken up the mantle of racism, homophobia and crazy conspiracy theories. There is a widespread believe that the mortgage meltdown was not cause by irresponsible banks, but rather by irresponsible homeowners—and in particular, minority homeowners who might have been aided by the Community Reinvestment Act. In general, they deny the science of climate change, but go far beyond that by claiming that any action taken to combat emissions is part of a grand United Nations conspiracy theory called Agenda 21. Many tea party elements and other reactionary conservatives genuinely believed that the Affordable Care Act was part of a socialist plot to turn the United States toward some ill-defined notion of socialism and institute death panels where apparatchiks would supposedly make life judgments about whether our senior citizens were worth keeping alive or not.
From an electoral point of view, this ultra-conservative streak has cost the Republican Party control of the U.S. Senate. The only reason Democrats still hold a Senate majority is because of strategic blunders by Republican primary voters who nominated far-right candidates over better-liked and perhaps more mainstream contenders. If, in the 2010 and 2012 elections, primary voters had selected someone besides Sharron Angle in Nevada, Todd Akin in Missouri, Richard Mourdock in Indiana or (most laughably) Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, it would be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fighting for his electoral life in Kentucky right now amidst a far different political dynamic.
Given the combination of their ideological extremism, their fanaticism of their media operation and their lack of anything representing a cohesive electoral strategy to actually promote conservative causes rather than generate self-inflicted wounds, I have long been a subscriber to a theory of "peak wingnut." I believed that at a certain point in time, when enough negative electoral consequences had occurred and enough crazy conspiracy theories had proved not to be true, that the energy expended in producing further fanaticism from the tea party base would prove not worth the energy produced. Peak wingnut, if you will. But the events of recent weeks have set out a convincing case that peak wingnut is, in fact, a myth.
The virulent reaction to the negotiated release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is perhaps the most striking. Even though tea party types usually have reverence for those who don the uniform, they uniformly opposed the exchange of five Guantanamo prisoners for Bergdahl—not just on the grounds that an American POW was not worth the freedom of five Taliban fighters and administrators, but because Sgt. Bergdahl himself was allegedly a traitor and a deserter. And it did not matter that these same conservative activists had previously been critiquing President Obama for not having brought Bergdahl home already. Not bringing Bergdahl home was disrespectful to the military, but in the world of the tea party, so was negotiating his release.
The reaction to the capture of the prime suspect in the attack on Benghazi was not much better. One could have expected that the conservative movement, which has invested so much time and energy into supposedly holding accountable those who were responsible for the attacks, would have been overjoyed. But Republican politicians in general were dismissive of the incident at best, and shamelessly opportunistic at worst. As Brian Beutler writes:
Treating every iterative development as further evidence of a shapeless conspiracy to gin up a reactionary political base doesn't come close to that balance. It isn't even really responsive.
Heck, Fox News even speculated that the capture of the Benghazi suspect was timed
to facilitate a Hillary Clinton book tour. And ultimately, it is precisely this sort of conspiratorial fervor that leads to shocking outcomes like what happened earlier this month, when former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election to a total unknown, largely because despite having courted the tea party base in what has been speculated to be an informal popularity contest against Speaker Boehner, he still was not perceived to be far enough right on the issue of immigration—a key point of necessary flexibility if the Republican Party is to survive for the long term.
Oil may not be a renewable resource, but the conspiratorial tendencies of the right wing are. It's a vicious feedback loop that seems to pay no heed to cost or consequence, much less intellectual consistency. There is no such thing as peak wingnut: there's always a fresh reserve bubbling up somewhere.
Author's note: the term "peak wingnut" appears to have been first used by John Cole at Balloon Juice in 2008.