U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Idea of "Extremism"

Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s new book about the dysfunctional state of American government, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, has been getting a lot of press lately.  I haven’t read it yet, but I have been struck by a word in the book’s subtitle — “How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism” — that, based on reviews and Mann and Ornstein’s own summaries of their argument, plays an important role in their diagnosis.

As the subtitle suggests, “extremism” is very much the villain in Mann and Ornstein’s story about American politics.  Mann and Ornstein use “extremism” to describe today’s Republican Party.*  They write that the contemporary GOP is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Though I agree with much of Mann and Ornstein’s argument about the failure of our constitutional system, the analytical category of “extremism” seems very problematic to me.

“Extremism” is an old hot-button word in American politics.  It is almost entirely a pejorative.  And it has two related, often blurred meanings: it can be a description of an ideology, but it can also be a description of political tactics.  Indeed, it very often implies both while fudging the distinction between the two.  I don’t know how Mann and Ornstein finesse the relationship between ideology and political tactics in the book-length version of their argument. In their summaries of it, the two are treated as almost entirely the same thing. The authors use “extremism” explicitly to describe the GOP’s ideology, but that ideology essentially entails a set of political tactics, which are, in a sense, the real focus of Mann and Ornstein’s concern.

The word “extremism” is, of course, a spatial metaphor. Ideologically speaking a view is “extremist” based on its distance from some (purported) ideological center.  Tactically, a political behavior is “extremist” if it doesn’t conform with some sense of moderation.  By the beginning of the Cold War, the notion that real political answers were to be found in the vital center had become a key component of U.S. liberalism.  Opponents to both the left and the right could be labeled “extremist,” a term that suggested that the accused was dangerously close to the truly far right or far left, fascism or communism.

When critics labelled Barry Goldwater an extremist in 1964, the newly crowned GOP candidate, to the great surprise of the media, became one of the few modern U.S. political actors to embrace the term:

Goldwater’s declaration about “extremism in the defense of liberty” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice” became the most famous line from his convention address.**  Clearly Goldwater was embracing the notion of extremism in tactics.  Indeed, the speech attempts to connect the idea of extremism to two things that are conventionally seen as core aspects of the dominant U.S. ideology: liberty and justice.  But despite its fame, Goldwater’s attempt to domesticate the rhetoric of extremism failed miserably.  While many elements of Goldwater’s campaign survived his spectacular defeat and became key elements of much more successful conservative campaigns in the future, the word “extremism” remained a pejorative in mainstream politics (though some activists on the right would occasionally lay claim to it in Goldwater fashion).  This year’s presumptive Republican nominee accuses the President of “environmental extremism”; he never embraces the term as a description of himself.

The largely pejorative nature of “extremism” and the slippery relationship between its ideological and tactical referents are two reasons that I am suspicious of it as an analytic term.  But there’s a more specific reason that I am bothered by Mann and Ornstein’s usage of it. To the extent that “extremism” has an objective meaning, it is relational: an extremist view is far from the center, outside the mainstream.

Whatever else you can say about today’s Republican Party, it is, for better or for worse, not outside of the mainstream.  It remains very competitive in national elections.  It won the 2010 midterms pretty resoundingly.  Though a slender majority of the public views the Republican Party unfavorably, a very substantial minority–forty percent–have a favorable view of it.  I have a hard time calling a view held by forty percent of the public far from the mainstream.  And, indeed, when it comes to policy positions on many major issues, the distance between the two parties is not nearly so great as the level of partisan hostility would suggest.

So “extremism” seems to me to be an imprecise and lazy way to describe the problem about which Mann and Ornstein are writing (a problem the existence of which I absolutely acknowledge). Not only does it not accurately describe the relationship of the current Republican Party to the current mainstream of American politics, but it also at least implicitly rests on the notion that the answers to our political problems can always be found in the political center.  Without in any way embracing the substance of Barry Goldwater’s political vision, I would have to agree with him that extremism is not always a political vice (though I’d like to think that I’d have the good sense not to say as much on the stump).

* One of the authors’ main points is that we need to move beyond the journalistic tendency to want to present the two major parties as essentially similar, mirror images of each other.   Although as I note above I have some problems with the way they characterize the Republican Party, I am entirely in sympathy with the view that the conventional desire to see the two parties as similar to each other is deeply wrongheaded and interferes with understanding American politics.

** They are said to have been penned by Harry Jaffa, one of Leo Strauss’s first students and a consultant to the Goldwater campaign, though they certainly do not represent a particularly Straussian sentiment.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I agree with your observation that the word extremism is problematic primarily because of its common political usage to describe how unreasonable an opponent is, but I think a party can still be extreme (ideologically and tactically) and still receive a large percentage of support. In 1932 (in Germany)the Nazi party received 37% of the vote and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to call them extreme. Just because a large percentage of the population supports a party or a cause doesn’t mean ipso facto they can’t be extreme. Wasn’t Barry Goldwater famous for saying after losing to Lyndon Johnson, “Twenty five million people can’t be wrong.”

  2. Other words have sometimes been used to describe some of these phenomena: intransigent, maximalist, fundamentalist, absolutist, radical, even revolutionary. why is it that ‘extremist’ seems to stick when it’s thrown around in contemporary discourse, where some of these other words–particularly ‘intransigent’ or something like it, which seems to describe the phenomenon here without the spatial baggage?


    that’s maybe on the way to an answer?

  3. It’s interesting here that another famous political figure attempted to “domesticate” this word “extremist” in his own way. I’m thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he describes initially having been dismayed by the label extremist only to embrace a version of it: “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

    I wonder why, given the way that MLK works in our contemporary political discourse–a useful container for a wide variety of viewpoints left and right, a sign of incontestable moral virtue–conservatives haven’t more often picked up rhetorical formulations like this when the label is applied to them.(Maybe they already have–I seem to recall that Glenn Beck did something like this a couple of years ago in one of the more outrageous traducements of the civil rights movement in recent memory). Anyhow, it seems to me that we might read Goldwater’s effort in that thicker context? _Why We Can’t Wait_ which included the Birmingham letter, was published in summer of 1964.

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