The case for extremism

Posted: May 31, 2006 12:05 AM

Americans love their angry moderates, their principled centrists and their predictable independents almost as much as they love jumbo shrimp and other oxymorons. Indeed, the ranks of Americans who call themselves "independent" swell with every passing year. Self-appointed guardians of our national "discourse," led by the pontiff of pacific politics, David Broder, constantly disparage partisanship, ideology and, most of all, "extremism" as inherently bad.

This hatred of extremism is a bit odd. Nowhere else in life do we think extremism is inherently bad regardless of context. When doctors use "extreme measures" to save a life, we don't tar the surgeon as an "extremist." Meanwhile, the moderate or middling thing to do is often morally and intellectually indefensible. A surgeon who agrees to work on a patient for three hours but no more - because that would be extreme - is negligent. Refusing to perform "radical surgery" for fear of being an extremist is criminally childish. In other words, sometimes the "extreme" thing to do is also the right thing to do.

Consider the current immigration debate. The Senate version of the immigration bill calls for a three-tier system for illegal immigrants. If you've been here for fewer than two years, you've got to go. If you've been here for two to five years, you'd have to leave briefly at a convenient time and sign up for the guest-worker program. Those here for more than five years could get citizenship. It's a perfectly centrist, middle-of-the-road solution. Everybody gets something. And, quite simply, it's idiotic.

"You can see how it has the earmarks of a political compromise," former Immigration and Naturalization Service Director Doris Meissner told NPR, "but from an implementation standpoint, it's essentially unworkable."

Almost by definition, illegal immigrants don't create a paper trail when they come into the country. Hence, proving how long they've resided here presents a real challenge. It also creates massive opportunities for fraud and opens the door to a truly extreme bureaucratic expansion where immigration officials will have to study everything from ATM receipts to soccer team photos to figure out how long each immigrant has been here. The extreme liberal position of blanket amnesty and the extreme conservative position of blanket enforcement both make a lot more sense intellectually and practically.

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.