Acknowledging the admittedly remote risk that I am giving a hostage to fate by writing these words, I note that the implosion of Wendy Davis’s ugly and vacuous gubernatorial campaign in Texas has been a satisfying spectacle. On Tuesday, it is all but inevitable that Greg Abbott’s campaign and Texas voters are going to beat Wendy Davis like a circus monkey, and it will be her second significant defeat in the campaign: She ran triumphantly unopposed in the New York Times primary, with Robert Draper all but kissing the hem of her garment, but she took a beating in the Rio Grande primary, with her penniless nobody opponent outperforming her in critical border counties that had gone heavily for Barack Obama in the presidential elections.
Bipartisan lesson: If you are going to run a horsepucky media creation as a single-issue candidate, pick a single issue that doesn’t stack voters up against you four to one.
Wendy Davis is a fanatic as Winston Churchill defined the word: “One who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Her candidacy was the product of abortion fanaticism and almost nothing else. Texas Democrats have a pronounced weakness for abortion fanaticism, an inclination having something to do with their being fascinated by the grotesque line of succession from the late Governor Ann Richards, abortion fanatic par excellence, to her daughter, Cecile, the butcher’s apprentice who today serves as the public face of Planned Parenthood.
“Fanaticism” is not synonymous with “extremism.” Extremism, as Barry Goldwater famously declared, is not necessarily a vice. My colleague Charles C. W. Cooke holds extremist views — absolutist views, in fact — about free speech, the sainted Mother Teresa was nothing if not an extremist in her devotion, etc. Mother Teresa sometimes doubted her faith, but the true fanatic does not. He is, as The American Heritage Dictionary puts it, “possessed by an excessive zeal and uncritical attachment to a cause or position.” The fanatic does not necessarily even hold out-of-the-mainstream opinions: Robert Reich, the lawyer who sometimes plays an economist on television, brings his unique brand of cracked fanaticism to views that are so common as to be pedestrian. Fanaticism entails the identification of the self with the cause, and the fanatic lives in fear that someone, somewhere, might be wrong about the Fair Tax, gay marriage, or the carried-interest treatment of private-equity managers’ incomes. In the case of Wendy Davis, this is particularly perverse: Her life has been given meaning by the opposite of life.
Fanatics in fact often have the least interesting opinions: We’ve all met that WASPy, raised-on-the-ninth-hole Haverford School graduate who discovered the Palestinian cause at Smith and continued sermonizing sophomorically on the issue well past the end of sophomore year. I once had a student who fit that description almost precisely, and every third word out of her mouth was “Zionist” — “The Zionists did this,” “The Zionists did that,” “Would you please pass the salt if the Zionists will allow it?” Every topic of conversation, from the Social Gospel movement to the quality of the food in the Bryn Mawr College cafeteria (not bad), was in the end about the sundry crimes of the Zionists. I shared with her the Churchill witticism above, and she responded: “Exactly. It’s like when you’re debating with a Zionist . . . ”
The defect is a transpartisan one. If you look long enough into the quietly desperate eyes of Wendy Davis (“And when you gaze into the Abyss . . . ”), you’ll see a familiar face gazing back at you: that of Christine O’Donnell, fanatic without portfolio. If you have ever been fixed by the squirrely thousand-yard stare of Miss O’Donnell, then you know how easy it is to imagine her sitting in front of an Adler Universal typewriter with 400 identical pages reading “All work and no play makes Christine vigorously pursue issue activism to empower citizen activists for all levels of government,” over and over again, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. A few years ago, I attended an event that caused me to spend an hour in an enclosed space with a few dozen very enthusiastic evangelists from the Church of Ayn Rand; one of them, upon learning that I worked at National Review, asked whether we might be interested in some articles on subjects of mutual interest. I lied politely that we would, and he said that he’d send over some story pitches — as soon as we published an apology for Whittaker Chambers’s review of Atlas Shrugged and purged — “purged” was his actual word –— the article from our website and archives. Chambers published his review in the December 28, 1957, issue of National Review, some years before either I or the gentleman making these lunatic demands were born. But there is no statute of limitations on fanaticism.
Strangely enough, marijuana reform is a notable locus of fanaticism. You’d think that of all the single-issue enthusiasms across these fruited plains, the marijuana-legalization crusade would be one of the more laid-back. It isn’t. If you think that the gay-marriage obsessives or the Chicken Littles of climate change are fanatics and bores, spend a few hours with the potheads. Marijuana — or cannabis, or hemp, or whatever particular nomenclature the individual factionalist with whom you are speaking insists upon — will, if the ganja gang is to be believed, cure cancer, replace fossil fuels, prevent global warming, transform the economy, balance the budget, lower taxes, win the war on terror (“Duuude, I could go for some falafel . . . ”), lower health-care costs, eliminate kitchen drudgery, turn a sandwich into a banquet, and find that slipper that’s been at large under the chaise lounge for several weeks. I agree with the potheads on the basic policy, but even so, it is all but impossible to have a conversation with them about the subject, especially one that considers the possible downsides associated with having a legal free market in marijuana, such as an increased difficulty in getting correct change at 7-Eleven, longer lines at Taco Bell, increased incidence of Phish concerts, etc.
That being said, there is something special about the fanaticism of Wendy Davis, because there is something special about abortion fanaticism. There are people of good faith and defective judgment on the pro-choice side of the argument, and then there are lunatics. I was at a party some years ago and winced as a 100 percent pro-choice Democratic member of the Pennsylvania state house, attempting to have an earnest discussion of the abortion question with me, was interrupted primly by his fanatical girlfriend every time he pronounced the descriptor “pro-life” — “anti-choice!” she insisted, at least 20 times over the course of a conversation that lasted maybe as many minutes. The bravest of soldiers fighting in the best of causes can concede that war is hell, full of mistakes and moral compromises, but the abortion fanatic cannot concede that over the normal course of human affairs every abortion represents a failure and a tragedy, something that should be obvious even to people who support abortion rights.
But there is no reasoning with a fanatic. Barring some unforeseen outbreak of mass asininity, there’s no electing one governor of Texas, either.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.