22. Extremism

I have never been an admirer of political or religious extremism.  Adolph Hitler was my introduction to extremism and initially I mistook him for a clown and laughed. That was in the days of Charlie Chaplin’s great impersonations. Perhaps laughter is the strongest weapon we possess against political extremists but it is very hard to laugh at someone so inept as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas filibustering the Senate floor for 21 hours, I now understand that extremism spells: Danger!

Some friends have argued that it takes two to tango in a democracy: the right and the left, the Tories and Labour, the capitalists and the socialists, those for downsizing government and those opposed. I have felt that unless the contenders in these divisions had some degree of civility, displayed a readiness for dialogue and were ultimately willing to compromise, the only solution was to vote the extremists out of office or expel them from whatever group or party they belonged and to replace them with “tolerants.”1

The complexity of the problem is illustrated by President Obama strongly denouncing Congressional extremists while he himself is viewed as an extremist by his Tea-Party opponents. For these radicalized members of the Republican Party bringing down the entire governmental process would be a triumph — even when they have no idea of what might follow. As President Theodore Roosevelt declared over a century ago: “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.”

It is significant that no political party ever calls itself “extremist,” or that its most radical members ever call each other, to the right or left, extremists. Tea-Party members see themselves as “true” conservatives and ardent patriots. They do not even accept being called “radical” because in America that word is regarded as pejorative. Earlier on in this series I wrote about “obstructionism”.2

The two terms are not exclusive. Obstructionists can be extremists and vice-versa. Obstructionists are frustrated and want to block change; extremists are protesters and want reform. The economist Ronald Wintrobe has noted that many extremist movements, even though they might have opposing ideologies, share a common set of characteristics: They are against any compromise, are entirely sure of their position, are intolerant of dissent within their group, and demonize the “other side.”

Robert F. Kennedy noted: ”What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.” In Kennedy’s unfortunate case the extremist who shot him was not only intolerant but murderous.

I find it difficult to acknowledge that politics are rarely rational: race, religions, class are all factors in determining political allegiance in a democracy. Many southern and right-wing Republicans have not been able to come to terms with the election and re-election of the first African-American president. They also have emotional problems with any form of gun control legislation, environmental protection, and science — all of which could undermine their basic beliefs. Part of their growing extremism is furthered by the provocation of the host of right-wing think tanks funded by such extreme billionaires as the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

The Heritage Foundation and its spin-off, Heritage Action for America, aided by lobbyists, teams of organizers and social media specialists are sponsors of most of the current extremist efforts. Heritage Action has taken to ranking members publicly according to how they vote and exposing them when these members of Congress do not follow the ‘conservative’ party line. Ultimately they threaten rebels with challengers in the party primaries. “When you are spending $550,000 attacking Republicans and not the Democrats who voted for Obamacare, it is entirely fair to question what your motives are,” said Brian Walsh.”3

Heritage Action has been effective in advancing its own power in Washington and has focused for several years on ways to defund the Obamacare health program which they view as more toxic than any government shut-down. Its place as the leader of America’s think tank extremists was confirmed in 2012 by its selection of the former senator and southern bigot, Jim DeMinto, to oversee its subversive operations in Washington.

But extremism in the United States has spread far beyond the corridors of power in the Congress. Media coverage has encouraged the polarization of extremes. Fox News, for example, presents the news as seen by the right — any other perspective is ignored. The so-called rebuttals are phony. The impact of broadcasters of venom, like Rush Limbaugh, is pronounced. It reinforces the prejudice and emotions of those on the right and succeeds in producing extreme views in an audience which no longer tolerates dissent. But then common forms of communication, such as debate, discussion, and disagreement, are no longer tolerated by most Americans.

I ask myself, where are the left-wing extremists of yesteryear? There are no effective ones that stand out! I have been surprised by the lack of focused anti-extremists for the very soul of the United States of America. I deem it high time for a national revulsion to be expressed against the distinctly narrow, anti-democratic, nihilistic practices of the Tea-Party extremists. If such revulsion ultimately takes hold, perhaps the voters can obliterate this highly destructive and dangerous grouping  of obstructionists in November 2014.

1Don’t bother to look for it in the dictionary — it is not there.
2See Blog #16 Oust the Obstructionists!
3Former communications director the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

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2 thoughts on “22. Extremism

  1. Thank you Yorick for raising the question about what is taking place on the political scene in the U.S. I find the ongoing farce downright bewildering. But the phenomenon of extremism is not an American issue only. I’ve always suspected “one-truth” or “one-cause” politicians. Years ago in my country there was a Green Party candidate whose one and only argument for running for parliament was that he wanted to put an end to motor-racing. Wider perspectives, please! I thought. Politicians ought to know more.
    I have a wish that people who go into politics (to make decisions about matters that concern all of us!) had enough imagination to believe in humanity and tolerance and enough backbone to say: “Shame on greed! Shame on corruption! Shame on racism! There is real work to do.” If a teacher can be a good teacher only if he loves his pupils, a politician would by that same definition be a good one only if he loves life and humanity. People who harbor hatred or retaliation are not “well-functioning” people. If one eye is blind, how can you see how societies work? How can you deal with the rational and the irrational that every politician has to take into account? It calls for much more than a few loud opinions.

  2. I’m intrigued by extremism in terms of how people can arrive at such a point in the first place. I have strived to be moderate, which can be difficult at times when tested! Nevertheless, I have come across an interesting book – “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them” by Joshua Greene – that attempts to explain the underlying impulse that humans have to form communities on the one hand, and exclude outsiders on the other. He advocates a kind of meta-morality to combat what is innate to our neurological make-up in an attempt to get beyond our shortcomings. In fact, our extremist behaviour stems from our tribal instincts, except that they can become easily overwhelmed in a modern society (with increasing population density) and leads to detrimental behaviours.

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