Jonah Goldberg

This sort of thing is typical across the political landscape. Personally, I believe the radical remedy of privatizing health care in this country makes a lot of sense. But, I'm also inclined to believe that the left's extreme solution of government-run health care - or "single-payer" - has a lot more going for it intellectually than the crazy-quilt of regulations and grotesquely distorted markets we have today.

On issue after issue, the left and right get into a tug-of-war over their preferred policy solutions. And politicians, extreme people-pleasers that they are, try to split the difference. The journalists who cover politicians are cynics and assume that true believers are by their very nature suspicious. Moreover, because politicians and mainstream journalists alike get the most grief from "partisans" of the left and the right, they both assume that the middle is the most enlightened place to be, since they think that's where they are. But compromise is not always the smartest way to go. Leaping a canyon in one jump may or may not be stupidly extreme, but it's a hell of lot smarter than the more moderate approach of trying to leap it in two jumps.

Lest I seem too bipartisan myself here, it should be noted that the bias against extremism is not a purely centrist phenomenon. It comes in large part from a sustained liberal campaign against conservatives. The most famous illustration of this is probably Barry Goldwater's perfectly sensible declaration that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. But for a generation of liberals, extremism was something to be found only on the right, never on the left, and Goldwater's observation was taken as code for extremism liberals don't like.

Paladins of bipartisan moderation may not realize how responsible they are for today's polarized climate. In America, it is impossible to gain traction on an idea unless you first assure everyone that it's not "extreme" or "radical." Assurances that "this is a moderate, centrist reform," and that "this is mainstream," proliferate whenever a policy is put forward. There's a deep cynicism in the assumption that Americans will only agree to things that aren't too inconvenient. But, more important, there's a profound dishonesty to such assurances, which inevitably cause people with opposing views to get very, very angry.

For example, legalizing gay marriage may or may not be a moral imperative. But when you tell opponents that doing so is not only no big deal, but also that those who disagree are extremists for disagreeing, it's insulting. And, when pro-legalization activists refer to gay marriage as "landmark," "revolutionary" and "historic" to their own side while selling it to the rest of America as a modest reform, it's hard not to assume some bad faith.

In short, extremism in pursuit of moderation is not necessarily a virtue.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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