Extremism In Defense of Extremism Is No Vice

What's wrong with challenging the status quo?


"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads," Woody Allen once said. "One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Americans face a similar crossroads now. On the one hand, they can vote for the most extreme, dangerous bunch of radicals ever to appear on a ballot in an election year. Or if they prefer, they could vote for the most radical, dangerous bunch of extremists ever to—well, you know.

The other day the Democratic Party of Virginia sent out an email blast with the subject line "The most extreme line up ever." It warned that Democratic candidates this year were "running against a slate of extreme tea party Republicans who want to drag this Commonwealth backward. This year the stakes are higher than ever." The email goes along with the party's new video condemning—yep—"the most extreme Republican ticket in history."

This is but the latest example in a long and richly bipartisan tradition of bashing opponents as the most extreme bunch of lunatics ever to spew from Satan's colon. And while the wording changes slightly, the message never does. A couple decades ago, state Democratic Party Chairman Mark Warner was declaring the GOP candidates "the most extreme right-wing ticket ever"—while 300 hundred miles to the north, Republican Rudy Giuliani was opining that "Democratic primaries are won by the most extreme candidate." (Namely his opponent, whoever that turned out to be.)

The next year, Oliver North challenged Chuck Robb for the Senate, denouncing the moderate Democrat as an "extremist." Robb returned the favor. In 2001, state GOP director Ed Matricardi excoriated the Democratic lineup as the "most liberal" in Virginia's history, while Democrats termed the GOP ticket "the most right-wing" in years.

Last year, Mass Resistance, a Massachusetts-oriented political group, lamented: "Mass GOP Convention Nominates Most Extreme Pro-Gay & Anti-Family Gov & Lt. Gov. Candidates Ever." Which was odd, because about the same time, the abortion-rights website RH Reality Check was warning, in "More GOP Candidates More Extreme Than Ever," that "the 2010 crop of GOP candidates" displayed "more extreme stances on reproductive-rights issues than we've seen in a long time." So apparently the GOP was nominating candidates who were virulently both pro-gay and anti-abortion. Inscrutable, those Republicans.

During the 2008 campaign, John McCain denounced Barack Obama for having "the most extreme" voting record in the Senate. Obama, McCain said, "is more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont."

Likewise Robert P. George, McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, who wrote a widely circulated piece contending that Obama was "the most extreme pro-abortion candidate ever to seek the office of President of the United States. . . . Indeed, he is the most extreme pro-abortion legislator ever to serve in either house of the United States Congress."

In some ways this amounts to nothing more than the silly hot air that all campaigns blow. It's pretty hard to get out the vote by saying, "The other guys? Ehhh, they're not so bad."

And in the heat of the campaign, many voters actually do convince themselves the other guys are the worst ever. The University of California's Jonas Kaplan studies the psychology of political affiliation. As he explains, "in the political process, people come to decisions early on and then spend the rest of the time making themselves feel good about their decision."

Many in the media are glad to help them do it, by serving up an endless train of alarmist articles about how one side or the other is chock-full of bug-eyed nut jobs pushing hidden agendas and radical ideas: Christian "dominionism" (Rick Perry), anti-colonialist Alinskyite subversion (Barack Obama), Straussian neoconservatism (George W. Bush).

Of course, it might be true that in some instances, a candidate really is the "most extreme ever" along some axis or another. But does this tell us anything important? Not so much.

Suppose that, in 1955, a Southern political candidate had declared segregation obscene, laws against ethnic intermarriage odious, and the notion of racial supremacy grotesque. Suppose he organized bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins and marches for civil rights. Suppose he promised to overturn Jim Crow as soon as he took office. If any candidate had done that, he would have been widely denounced as the "most extreme" you-know-what-lover ever.

He also would have been right.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.