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The politics of paranoia

Republican paranoia has crushed an Interior Department program intended to recognize conservation efforts. But that's not all it's done.
A fisherman looks back at another's catch as he stands in the Ramapo River, Saturday April 7, 2007, in Oakland, N.J.
A fisherman looks back at another's catch as he stands in the Ramapo River, Saturday April 7, 2007, in Oakland, N.J.
It may be an obscure federal program, but the demise of the National Blueways System speaks to a larger pattern (thanks to my colleague Tricia McKinney for the heads-up).

A U.S. Interior Department program intended to recognize conservation efforts along the nation's waterways was dissolved on Friday amid opposition from landowners and politicians who feared it would lead to increased regulations and possible land seizures. The National Blueways System was created in May 2012 under President Barack Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative. The program was voluntary, didn't include any new regulations, and a designation -- bestowed on only two rivers, one of which was dropped last year because of local opposition -- brought no additional funding.

The whole point of the program -- really, the only point -- was to recognize conservation efforts. The White River, for example, received the designation after the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Nature Conservancy recommended it for the honor. The Interior Department agreed, which again meant no new spending and no new regulations.
But as the AP report explained, last summer, Republican members of Congress from Arkansas and Missouri began complaining, asking the Interior Department how to revoke the designation. Why? Because conservatives, led in part by Sen. John Boozman (R-Arka.) believed the National Blueways System could force private landowners to cooperate with conservation efforts.
Remember, there was nothing in the program that compelled anyone to do anything. But the right got paranoid and Republican members of Congress took that paranoia seriously.
The result came last week, with the demise of the program.
What's striking to me is how often stories like these pop up. A few months ago, for example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization decided to grant World Heritage status to the Alamo, giving the Texas historical site the same status as other American treasures such as Independence Hall, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Statue of Liberty. Conservatives freaked out, saying this meant the U.N. might seize control of the landmark.
This happens all the time, at every level of government. The U.S. Senate can't ratify the Arms Trade Treaty because of delusional paranoia from the far-right, which Republican senators choose to take seriously. Congress won't consider expanded background checks because of baseless paranoia about a "gun registry" that would not and cannot exist. Republicans killed a treaty on the rights of people with disabilities because of paranoid conspiracy theories with no basis in reality.
The paranoia surrounding the 2012 attack in Benghazi could probably fill several books.
It's one thing for fringe activists to promote silly fears, but we've reached the point at which Republican officials at the highest levels are choosing to take the paranoia seriously -- perhaps because they fear primary opponents, perhaps because they sincerely share the base's bizarre fears. Either way, it's no way for a major modern party in a 21st century superpower to operate.
Indeed, how can anyone expect to have serious policy debates when one side of the political divide is willing to act on nonsensical beliefs that are embraced even after they're discredited?