It's an unwritten rule: Wherever a Republican faces a Democrat in a partisan election, the Democrat must accuse the Republican of being "extreme". Can anyone cite a partisan contest where this hasn't been true?
We hear the label so often that we should be desensitized by now. In fact, the "extreme" label is so overused that we should view with suspicion any Republican candidate or policy not so labeled. What do the Democrats say about the War on Drugs?
Because every aspiring statesman outside the demagogic party must eventually face it, I am starting now to sort out its meaning and answer the implied questions: What does "extreme" mean anyway? Is it automatically bad to be extreme?
Usually, "extremist" is just a hollow, pejorative epithet. Hurled with little context and no substantiation, the name caller leaves listeners to supply their own. This clever ploy simultaneously avoids the inconvenience of cluttering up a good sound bite with reasoning as it invites individual listeners to exercise their idiosyncratic prejudices.
A politician supplying reasons at the time of name calling could split an audience, satisfying some while alienating others. It's far more effective propaganda to load one's speech with ambiguous but pejorative words, leading listeners into filling in the gaps for themselves.
Emphatic (Extreme) Speech
People who use forceful language will often be carelessly branded as extreme. Their tone or level of may be extreme, but that doesn't emphasis mean that their policy ideas are. Newt Gingrich is the poster child for emphatic "extremists".
Millions of Americans, even many Republicans, are absolutely 100% sure that Mr. Gingrich was one of the most extreme politicians in 20th Century American politics. However, can anyone find even one policy he advocated that was not centrist or even (gasp!) "liberal"?
Exemplifying his centrist policy, in 1995, as House Speaker, he cajoled his fellow Republicans, against their better wisdom, to offer President Clinton a budget that increased spending at twice the rate of inflation. That wasn't fiscally conservative at all (and when the President vetoed it, demanding three times the rate of inflation, the Republicans had no maneuvering room left to compromise; the rest is spin history).
Newt may have been outspoken and provocative, especially in his early days as a minority republican member of a solidly democratic House, but he wasn't extreme. He wasn't even a conservative.
I speak and write forcefully and provocatively enough to be branded an extremist many times over, and I know that I will be. However, to be fair, wait to evaluate my policies before jumping to lazy conclusions. Some might actually be extreme by some measures, and I will need to justify such. However, many are moderate and seek balance by various measures, but you won't discover those if you allow name calling to distract you.
The word "radical" comes from the Latin "radix", meaning root, as in radish. A radical policy is one that advocates uprooting something, sometimes replacing it, and other times just throwing it away. Such policies are automatically labeled "extreme" by politicians of all stripes. Unfortunately, almost any change, no matter how slight, can trigger this knee-jerk reflex from a Democrat. (How ironically conservative they are!)
False alarms aside, there really are some radical policies, and I advocate my share. While it's true that the advocated degree of change may be extreme, the end result of a radical policy is often a restoration of some balance.
Also, regardless of whether or not balance is the end result of a radical change, there are issues where intermediate conditions are intolerable. In these cases, it's not wise to take small steps; it must be all or nothing.
There are many aspects of society with which many people are unhappy. People want change. If you are one of those people, then you had better prepare yourself to see past "extremism" complaints. Instead, when offered an "extreme" solution, evaluate the probable end results.
That means calming one's initial emotional reaction (whether positive or negative) and doing some thinking. It also means setting aside unfounded predictions (whether shrill or euphoric), to invest some time considering causes and effects.
How do we define what an extreme thing is anyway? Well, we first need to define a spectrum and then place the thing upon it. If the thing is at one end point of a closed scale, or if it's beyond nearly all peers on an open ended scale, then we can call it extreme.
In both "emphatic" and "radical" extremism, I touched on spectra: strength of speech and degree of change. These are inconsequential measures, gauging not the consequences but the process. However, because this fine distinction is never highlighted by those hurling the label, the implication is always that "extreme" means extreme consequences.
Once we are past the words and the schedule, the end results might be judged too. Beware however; a policy may be simultaneously measured on many ideological scales, some concrete/objective and some abstract/subjective. A goal can be at the end point of one scale and in the middle of another, so one pundit's extremism may be another's compromise.
At an End Point
The typical closed scale is zero to 100 percent of something. A policy goal aiming for zero or 100 would be extreme. Concrete example: The government considers subsidizing smallpox vaccinations. Zero subsidy would be "extreme" on this scale, as would 100%. A 50% subsidy would be moderate.
Abstract example: The government debates its role in K-12 education. On a scale of government involvement, complete abandonment would be extreme, as would compulsory attendance with a virtual government monopoly on school ownership, construction, operation, teacher hiring, curriculum writing, and book selection (sound familiar?). Supplying enough funding to enable the collective goal of universal education, but otherwise not intruding, would be a moderate balance.
A scale can be open ended on one or both ends. A budget is an example of a one-ended scale; it has an end point at zero but no fixed upper bound in sight. Diplomacy is open ended in the two directions of enmity and amity (and abstract as well).
When staking out policy territory on an open ended scale, one might try to pose as a moderate by describing an imaginary position beyond one's own and then pretending to seek "compromise". Indeed, this is a common tactic among bureaucrats and their congressional sycophants seeking funding on the open ended budget scale: they describe a policy asking for the moon and then "settle" for the stratosphere.
Don't be fooled. If a position is breaking new ground (or banks), then it may be fairly labeled extreme by that measure.
No Man's Land
Okay, up to here I have looked at what extremism is. Now let's ask, "Is extremism automatically bad?" As my "No Man's Land" header implies, my answer is an emphatic "No!" Consider this fable:
Mr. Right and Mr. Left were walking to lunch one summer day. As chance would have it, Mr. Left led them along the sidewalk on the hot sunny left side of the street. Mr. Right, desiring the cooler, shaded right side of the street, suggested that they cross to the sidewalk on the other side.
"But I like the sun!" said Mr. Left, unconcerned. A nearby shopper, Mrs. compromise, then suggested that they cross halfway and walk down the middle of the road, because we must cherish moderation in all things, and eschew the black and white thinking that denies hallowed shades of gray.
Mr. Left thought, "The middle of the road is still in the sun, so I am not losing anything, and maybe this complainer will shut up." So he agreed. Mr. Right thought to himself that he would be half way to his goal, so he would be able to wheedle the other half after another block or so, and so he agreed too.
So Mr. Right and Mr. Left crossed halfway and walked down the middle of the road. Mr. Right was about to comment on how uncomfortably hot he still was, but just then a bus hit and killed both of them.
This parable illustrates the fact that there are decisions where one should choose one extreme or another, because the middle can get you (or others) killed. I think we learned this lesson in Viet Nam, where we went half way to war and "half won". We would have done better to have either stayed home or honestly declared war on the North, conquered it, and then come home.
Without debating the relative merits of the two extremes, I'll merely assert that the middle ground was worse than either. Now we need to apply the lesson to other issues where compromise is riskier than being extreme or radical.
"Extreme" Can Be "Extremely Good"
Of course, there are other measures for people and policies. A candidate for office might have a one-in-a-thousand IQ. On the open-ended IQ scale then, s/he could be called "extreme" by being measured beyond most (and probably all) other politicians. Indeed, if such a politician even exists, s/he is probably "too extreme" to get elected.
Prosperity, liberty and justice for all are other measures where the people want and deserve more than half a measure. If my uncompromising aims for all three earn me the "extremist" label, then I shall learn to wear it with pride.
I'll confess that some of my policies are indeed extreme by some measures. However, many that will be dismissed as extreme can just as easily be gauged as moderate or restoring balance by important measures. And, even where my policies are extreme, I think the measures are positive ones. In those cases, extremism is good thing.
Of course, I couldn't possibly leave this topic without pasting the quote you've all been waiting for:
"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice... And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. "
Barry Goldwater, July 16, 1964
Republican presidential nomination acceptance speech
Copyright 2003 by Jeff Fisher