In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.That last bit of that paragraph is important. Bachmann comes from the evangelical movement and like many in that movement, from the leaders down to the mega-church goers, she sees the entire world as a cosmic conflict between good and evil. There is no room for equivocation or subtlety; everything is black and white and all conflicts are part of a life and death struggle between the saved and the fallen. This is why otherwise mundane debates about taxes and health care take on such a vicious tone; in the mind of this segment of the public, these debates are really about America's soul.
In the current cultural environment, this kind of thinking has been enabled. The right wing in particular (although the left wing is guilty of this as well) are able to bathe in information streams that are made only of things they want to hear. Facts and opinions are interchangeable. And this provides the raw material for constructing a house and even a village of alternate reality where outside input is viewed as extraneous. In an abundant marketplace of ideas the rants of a person like Bachmann are forced to compete with more sophisicated ideas backed by research and facts. But when Bachmann and people like her are able to create their own space where no outside ideas are allowed in, those ideas live on, they thrive, and they even create their own reality. And subscribing to an alternate understanding of reality is essentially what it is to be crazy.
I'm no fan of Bachmann but it is dismissive and dangerous to call her crazy, even if she is. When we label a movement, an organization, or one of its adherents as crazy (I mean that in parlance, not as a psychological or psychiatric diagnosis), we mean that the group or individual's ideas are so far beyond what is considered normal that they do not deserve to be treated with any kind of credibility. Given some of her statements about economics, sexuality, and anti-American conspiracies, it's easy to label her as insane, crazy, a fruitcake, batshit, et cetera. And even though that dismissive response may be the appropriate retort when identical ideas are uttered by a drunk on a street corner or a patient in a mental institution, when these same ideas come from a politician running for president in this environment, our dismissal plays right into her hands.
As Taibbi indicates, a certain kind of crazy is appealing to voters. Bachmann's rejection by the mainstream is proof of her authenticity in the eyes of her fans, who are similarly suspicious about the broader world. And as her allies grow, Bachmann does not really qualify as crazy. The "right wing nut job" label is only meaningful if she is isolated on the fringe. But she isn't and even if she does not make the 2012 presidential ticket, her presence in the race and in American culture will shift the conversation enough that the ideas she represents will have to be taken seriously.
Sanity is a democratic process and crazy is a minority opinion. But if we do not take the ideas of Bachmann and her ilk seriously, we may wake one day to find that madness has recruited enough of the gullible and the disillusioned to establish its own reality and those of us who had been dozing comfortably in our sanity are outnumbered and labeled and crazy, insane, or even dangerous.