So How Worried Should Americans Be About Extremism?

Note: I’m still thinking through the issue, but my rough answer is that you should always take extremism seriously. Extremist talk that “doesn’t go anywhere” permits a myriad number of injustices to come about and institutionalize themselves. I think that’s self-evident: people focus too much on one “problem” to the detriment of all other concerns, and it is not a healthy attitude for anyone who thinks themselves self-governing.

My brother recommended I read the following:

“Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right” (nytimes)

His claim was that this was far more sympathetic to the Tea Partiers than I have been. People aren’t just described as “racists” or “secessionists,” they’re taken at their word and their economic problems are quite obviously painful. A very strong “argument” (I don’t hold this is rational or legitimate in any way) for the extremism of the Tea Parties comes forth from the sentiments expressed in the article: if government can’t manage the economy and get these people what they need, and is instead throwing money at corporations and random things overseas, why should it command any loyalty?

Ario asked me today what it was like being in the US at this time. I responded that one can distinguish between a general skepticism about government and partisanship. The general skepticism explains why Bush-hatred has among some actually morphed into Obama-hatred, if I’m correct, and why the people who hate can’t see the obvious inconsistency. It also explains why partisans go to such lengths to say they’re just like everyone else.

Which brings us to the article above. Something’s really fishy about it – a woman that never really cared for politics becomes President of her Tea Party chapter at the first meeting? And now has members that are joining the Oath Keepers, of which she’s an honorary member? Wait a second, that sounds suspiciously like a radical who is very clever about how to recruit. The other stories also sound like leftover Clinton administration conspiracy theorists finding new ways to agitate. They have some real grievances, don’t get me wrong. But the real question is why anyone is paying them any attention. They’re quite obviously nuts and independent of real grievances should be marginalized. Their real grievances can be addressed by more legitimate channels, no?

So it looks like we’ve gone in circles, but we really haven’t. What we need is to look beyond people and for more general criteria about extremism and revolution. The fact is, there are always going to be extremists. The issue is how to prevent them from dominating political discourse, and that’s absolutely what they dominate now. There are academic theories about revolution, but I don’t really want to get into that, because we have to make a judgment call here and now about how bad things are in the US. I don’t feel they’re too bad, but I need something to clarify the intuitions.

I suspect we can divide what causes revolutions into proximate and underlying causes. Right away the objection can be raised that this is how an inquiry is conducted, and it can’t possibly help when you’re actually facing problems on the ground. How are you going to know ahead of time what’s “proximate” (the revolution hasn’t happened yet) and “underlying?” Well, the thing is, underlying causes have general features which aren’t hard to notice:

  • Sharply increased factionalization. This is not just partisanship, or the “we need a third party” rhetoric. This is what we see in the article above: a deep distrust of other Americans, arming to the teeth and stocking up on batteries, being susceptible to a number of conspiracy theories. And again, it’s not just one faction that would be the issue. When a political party can win an election by virtually calling every single other person voting for the other party “war criminals,” that’s extremism too (albeit to a lesser degree). The reason why I say “tone it down” against the President’s party is because extremism doesn’t combat other extremism successfully: the fact they have to govern is what moderates them, and that has quite obviously happened. I don’t know, objectively, that I can say factional rhetoric in the US is merely all talk: it isn’t just Tea Parties, it is, it is talk radio, it is certain NGO’s that say the US is worse for human rights than Sudan, it is certain religious fanatics, etc.
  • Actual violence. The incidents are increasing, but not at crisis level: nowhere near crisis level, actually. It’s safe to say, too, that the issue isn’t even “tons upon tons of violence.” You need the violence to demonstrate significant weaknesses in law enforcement, or to replace legitimacy entirely (cf. Lincoln, “Lyceum Speech”). Still, it is very worrisome that many on the Right and Left applaud violence directed at each other; just because I can’t say “my country isn’t on the brink of revolution” doesn’t mean we’re not going to hell and fast. And I do wonder how many Americans really deserve this country, esp. the idiots talking about secession all the time.

Moreover, I think you might be able to find at least one general criterion for the proximate cause:

  • Severe economic injustice. Again, like the “violence” criterion above, it isn’t as simple as people actually being poor. Being prone to revolution is feeling I’m poor because someone else has something I need that is keeping me from doing anything in life. France was the wealthiest country in continental Europe at the time of Revolution. The “economic injustice” here means more or less that longstanding grievances, while they can matter, are definitely exacerbated to awful degrees by present injustices. And present injustices do not need to affect all people, or even many. It can be just one that’s symbolic. The US government treads dangerous ground if unemployment becomes higher (around 20%, I’d imagine), stays high for a while with visible detrimental effects, and they are perceived as “out of touch.” Is that going to happen? Not even close, the government actually acted to make sure people had jobs and relief as the financial crisis began. Idiots stocking ammo and batteries are idiots. General complaints about the economy and job market – ones that truly hit hard – are raised by me, and they have less to do with the “government” and more to do with the values of society as a whole.

In sum: the Tea Partiers are a disgrace. Some of their complaints are valid, and those complaints should be addressed. That’s probably going to require a level of political rationality that the United States has never seen – the deep concerns animating the opposition in this country are about equality of opportunity, and being listened to properly by other groups in a democracy (one can say these concerns run so deep that no one is even aware of them). Fortunately, we’re a long way off from revolution. So what’ll probably happen is that a ton of money will sweep in to the United States at some future point, and everyone will be happy, because money makes the sort of citizen that dominates my country very happy. I think I’ll go vomit now.


  1. Thanks for this and your PM yesterday (I tried to answer, but SU was playing up and ate my reply).

    I obviously need to widen my source material for contemporary US politics – at the moment I’m overly reliant on The Economist (which is British really), your blog and, er, The Daily Show.

    I agree that irrational Bush-hatred has legitimised the status of irrationality in political debate. Similarly people (whether in the US or here in Germany) seem less concerned with due process and political and human realities and more with having their pet peeves and emotional desires addressed NOW.

    I do think the media – and many blogs too for that matter, yours being a fine exception – tend to foster that mindset rather than educate it. The only reason I don’t feel that way is thanks to reading this blog and a number of other politically literate blogs.

    Really, what I’m trying to say is, keep up the good work and, yeah, put up that button :-)
    .-= Ario´s last blog ..Feeling animated =-.

  2. I did not get into the statistics re: extremists which I talked about with you in the PM, and I should post those here. I think they show a smaller but very significant group of paranoid voters:

    The numbers vary widely depending on the poll – sometimes you can get 58% of Republicans polled (or more) to doubt the President is a citizen, and the “truther” thing crossed both parties. It looks like, contra what I e-mailed you, the safe number is a third of both parties are absolutely insane.

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