15 June 2012

What is extremism?

Cal Thomas takes issue in his latest column with Jeb Bush's recent criticisms of the current Republican party. Quoting Bush's description of "an unorthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement," Thomas infers that the Floridian has called the Republican base "extremist," though Bush never used the word during his interview. Republican conservatives have a conflicted relationship with the concept of "extremism." Barry Goldwater, a founding father of the modern movement, famously said at the 1964 Republican national convention that "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,"  adding that "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Goldwater embraced the label liberals applied to him, but nearly fifty years later, Thomas rejects the label and attempts to apply it to others. It seems that Goldwater and Thomas mean different things when they use the word, but "extremism" is still more flexible for rhetorical purposes. Consider three possible definitions for the term.

1. The holding of extreme opinions, "extreme" being understood as synonymous with "radical" in either the progressive or reactionary sense.

2. The resort to extreme means to realize an end, i.e. "extreme measures." In this case, one might say that vice in defense of liberty is extremism.

3. A refusal to compromise.

The third definition is the one Thomas infers from Jeb Bush's remarks, while Goldwater's use of the word comes closest to the second definition in the context of his purported belligerence toward international communism and his presumed preference for "brinksmanship" and "rollback" in waging the Cold War. Thomas himself comes closest to the first definition in his attempt to label people other than Republicans and Tea Partiers as "extremists." But when he asks why Democrats are rarely labeled "extremists" when they refuse to compromise or take a supposedly "moderate" position on certain issues, -- he defines a moderate as someone "who is pro-life or who favors less spending, smaller government and lower taxes," -- Thomas implies that the term is always subjective, selective and pejorative. He wants to define extremism objectively as a deviation from founding values, e.g. "Why aren’t liberals who are attacking the economic and moral foundations of the country the real extremists?" He also wants to reject "refusal to compromise" as an indicator of extremism, since he insists on the right and rightfulness of Republicans to refuse compromise with liberals simply for the sake of "getting things done." Obstructionism is not extremism for Thomas, and that raises the question of the relationship between extremism and compromise.

Compromise was once a virtue, and possibly the supreme virtue, in American politics, but it got a bad name after the Civil War. The Framers expected Congress to function through compromise, but the compromise they expected and depended upon was a compromise of interests -- economic interests specifically. Farmers compromised with merchants, merchants with industrialists. Such compromises could be quantified, usually in monetary terms. But as sectional conflict intensified, issues pertaining to slavery and the rights of slaveholders became more explicit and emotional conflicts of principle as well as conflicts of interest. It's more difficult to quantify a compromise of principles, and many principled people think such compromises are impossible. From the older perspective, the anti-slavery faction were the extremists because they insisted that moral principles trumped the imperative to reconcile all interests. That's where we're at today, though not for as good a reason. Conflicts over taxes and spending should be amenable to quantitative compromise. Instead, ideology insists that taxation beyond a bare minimum is always wrong on principle, or else that moral imperatives require the state to keep spending beyond its means. Centrist advocates of a "grand bargain" hope for a quantitative compromise on every front and see resistance on any front, from those unwilling to give in on taxes as well as those unwilling to give in on cuts, as "extremist." Ideology blinds many people to their own interests, though any ideologue will insist on their concrete interest in any dispute, since they see the very fate of the nation at stake in every debate. But if there is an objective ground from which we can indict extremism, it must be the one the Framers provided in their expectation that interests would be compromised. Here a better case can be made against Republican conservatives if you accept the liberal premise that Republicans put ideology ahead of the interests of needy and vulnerable Americans. Against that assertion of interest Republicans seem only to offer a moralistic insistence that each person accept the consequences of his life choices without making unconstitutional demands upon the state or fellow citizens. In a conflict between interests and ideology the ideologue should be presumed the extremist, however you judge him otherwise, unless the interest group resorts to extreme measures, e.g. the secession of slaveholding states. 

So was Goldwater wrong? In the domestic sphere, he was wrong if he saw every legislative conflict of interests as a threat to liberty. Globally, "liberty" however defined is not worth exterminating the human race to spite a tyrant. In general, the extremist's vice is his neglect of the material interests of others, down to their interest in life itself, in his exaltation of principle. But a person's free to think otherwise, and you have to respect Goldwater for making the label his own instead of hiding from it or trying to throw it on others, as Cal Thomas does. Unless you accept the dogmatically liberal premise that no end can justify any means, you can imagine situations when extreme measures may be justified. Such situations are more likely to put material survival than ideological integrity at stake. I have a hard time envisioning such situations in the halls of Congress, at least when legislators are debating budgets and tax rates.   When ideology prevents you from compromising, you're an extremist, and someone like Cal Thomas should neither fear admitting it nor bitch when someone even seems to call him one.  

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