The mainstreaming of extremism
An America split down the middle is an America probably not very far apart on many issues. But how would stating such a position serve voter mobilization, political party fundraising, and the empowerment of a wide range of narrowly focused activist groups?
Politics is a contact sport not just in Texas, as Molly Ivins once wryly noted, but throughout the country. It serves ideological, social, and political functions, but it also fulfills harder-to-define, almost biological, tribal, and personal needs/fears/perceptions. Who we are is at least partially defined by who we are not.
If most Americans were given complex, multiquestion, language-neutral (if such a concept is practical) questionnaires about moral and ethical values, as well as shared societal needs and long-term national goals, I suspect that, rather than harshly polarized camps, the results would show a community of surprisingly shared standards and concerns. But when translated into actual policy items, political ideas, and specific legislative initiatives, however conveyed by charged language, filled with loaded words and unspoken but rhetorically clear meanings our national demarcations become explicitly obvious.
Consider the following, painfully simplistic example, but only as entry into a way of thinking rather than a mature, well-realized proposition. Most Americans probably have deep concerns about the well-being and economic opportunities afforded or not afforded their neighbors, but phrase this as "overtaxing you to pay for them" or "disadvantaging your children to compensate their children for historic disadvantages," and the political landscape is dramatically redefined.
If this position about public sentiment is even close to valid, then why does the political landscape appear so dramatically polarized?
The Bush administration is the worst in my lifetime and, regardless of whether or not it achieves another term, it will take this country more than a generation to recover from it. I state that as a core opinion here, as I don't want to pretend in any way to be offering a disinterested consideration of current events. But the United States' polarization is truly a bipartisan achievement. Back to this at the end.
I was an adolescent at the time, but I vividly remember Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's famous declaration during the 1964 campaign: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Even though I very much opposed Goldwater, I found this a thrilling statement. There was something pure about it, something noble and stirring. The statement privileged vision over compromise. It offered a stunning clarity: that the pursuit of the noblest ambitions demands unswerving commitment.
Over time, we have seen that view rise to political prominence. Modified to accommodate almost any issue from abortion, gun control, animal rights, and civil rights to family values, the environment, education, and religious concerns the position requires fanatical devotion, regardless of which side one advocates. "Compromise" has become a bad word, usually employed to describe an inherently corrupting and diluting process. We admire politicians who champion ideological purity over accommodation and practicality. Politics is no longer the art of the possible or practical, but follows the aesthetic of ideological purism.
Think about this. It is now hard to view "uncompromising principles" in any way but admirably; it has become difficult to divorce "negotiated compromise" from concession and surrender.
These sentiments are the cancer destroying democracy. The core principals of a democratic republic the rule of the majority with consideration of the minority are only achieved by negotiation and compromise.
Extremism is easy. And it is lazy. Compromise and negotiation are impossibly difficult. Extremism is unachievable, and thus extremists own little practical responsibility. Compromise almost always involves concession. Extremists can and always do blame their failures on the failings of others. This is easy; negotiators are never pure, always giving ground on their vision. Extremists are always pure unto themselves, no matter their actual impact. Jumping around like crazy among ideological orientations, partisan loyalties, and extremist causes, entertain the following positions:
The most adamant supporters of our invasion of Iraq insist they were and are right: "If only the United States were willing to use completely unrestrained force, then the anti-democratic resistance would be subjugated. If only the bleeding-heart liberals and subversive one-world-government advocates didn't insist on human rights, common decency, and observing international regulations, we could destroy the terrorists and impose democracy. Those knee-jerk considerations are weapons of the terrorists."
"If only the tax-and-spend Democrats weren't stymieing the Bush administration's efforts, taxes could be even more drastically cut. Rolling back almost all regulations and restrictions would lead to a free market, which would eventually solve most social problems, create the world's greatest education system, ensure an unparalleled health care system, and safeguard the environment."
It is easy to raise the ante by factoring in the morally liberating "Nazi" comparison. Anti-abortion advocates argue that sitting by while abortions are legal is as if one were silent while Nazis ran the extermination camps. In this context, there is no action so extreme as to not be justified in shutting down the modern-day Auschwitzes and Dachaus (stopping abortion). Animal rights extremists make the same argument when it comes to animal experimentation. Not only is any action justified, but in addition, the destruction of stored experimental data, no matter how potentially beneficial, is demanded. Utilizing it would be the same as reading by lamps with shades made from human skin.
"Those opposed to the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent creation of a democratic state are traitors to this country's ideals; they are the enemy within and should be disenfranchised."
"There is no difference between mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans, so supporting either is unconscionable. Better to support Nader, regardless of real-world consequences."
Extremism here argues that allowing the country to become ever more right-wing focused on the concerns of the wealthiest people and most powerful institutions at the expense of most citizens will eventually drive this country to the left. Even though the last four years have made crystal-clear the absurdity of the argument that the two parties offer no real difference, the extremists know better. Lacking any significant historical precedent or even an indication that this country has ever undergone a dramatic shift to the left (rather than a very moderated one) in no way undermines this view.
"If you are in favor of the separation of church and state, then you don't believe in God."
"If you are opposed to the invasion of Iraq, then you support terrorism."
"Equal rights demands a completely level playing field, with history and historical consequence ignored."
"Since soldiers died to protect our freedom of speech, and protesting U.S. policy provides aid and comfort to the enemy, such protests are traitorous."
"Compromise on any bill, position, or thought is selling out and abandoning principle. Any moderation is Chamberlain-esque concession. Reasonable discussion and consideration is weak-willed acquiescence."
Forget that these positions, in almost every case, run counter to core constitutional principals, as well as those of an American democratic republic.
Who would have thought Goldwater's strident vision would become the common basis of most current political discourse? Accompanied by the ideological linchpin of that other great Republican intellectual, Spiro Agnew, extremists indulge in the purity of representing the silent majority's uncompromising core positions.
The Bush administration, having lost the popular vote, still confidently represents all real Americans. Showing any uncertainty on any issue is to besmirch that unspoken mandate.
Likewise, when polls indicated around 70% of the American public believed 9/11 was connected to Iraq and supported the war, the left confidently spoke of the masses' opposition to the invasion.
Naderites know that it is better to have four, eight, 12 years of Republican rule than to compromise their consciences. They know they speak for most Americans' disgust with the choices being offered by the two parties.
(Okay, is not the first step to moral fascism the notion that one's conscience is privileged over real-world repercussions of one's decisions? Does not the main power and impact of Nader's campaign, even as regards long-term political reverberations, come from his potential as a spoiler?)
Now let's take a breath here. What do we know of Americans? What positions evidence substantial evidential support? They want big vehicles with low gas mileage like SUVs, trucks, and Hummers. They want to pay less for gas. They want significant tax cuts, excellent education, and improved government support and services. They want top-paying jobs as well as the cheapest goods and services possible. They want freedom and protection. They believe in human and civil rights, as long as theirs are not infringed upon or their families impacted. They want roads but no new taxes and certainly not tolls. They wanted better air but no restrictions on their vehicles or air conditioning. They want a healthy environment, clean water, and safe food, but little to no restrictions or regulations.
Sure this is simplistic, but given these contradictions that, with some variations, are pretty widespread, how can any one claim to speak for them? How can any one advance the position that they know the concerns of those that don't publicly advocate or even participate in elections? Yet they do, now more than ever.
Back to the Bush administration: The Iraq invasion; massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; substantial gutting of reasonable environmental policies; devastatingly irreparable slashing of the social safety net; irresponsible, out-of-control, and unaccountable spending; and almost monarchal assertion of one-party rule have left this country leaking from every possible pore, with a reasonable, comprehensive cure not even feasible. The damage done is so widespread and uncontrolled that triage alone will last through several administrations.
The polarized atmosphere, the abandonment of compromise, the triumph of extremism, and the collapse of even any attempts at moderation may have achieved primacy during the Bush administration, but the groundwork was laid as a truly bipartisan effort. Over the past three or four decades, both Democrats and Republicans have gerrymandered congressional districts to serve their political parties rather than citizens, society, or community. There are now so few truly contested districts left that there is not only almost no demand for compromise, but an almost explicit mandate against it. Ignoring constitutional ideals and basic democratic tenets, politicians have gutted this country's established operating principles. We are paying for it now, but the real hell is just around the corner, when we find this country electorally unable to face the problems created.
Next time: The World and Me.