Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The politics of the word, "extremism"

Yesterday, I had a short piece out on how "extremist" candidates like Trump and Sanders might fare in a general election.  The Sanders part is of less importance since he is not now, nor has he ever been a potential nominee, but the funny thing has been the reaction.  Some of it got past my spam filter.

Sanders supporters get really fussy when they hear the word, "extremist," associated with their one, true political love.  Their reaction, almost invariably, is as follows:  "well, you know, in [Country X], Sanders wouldn't be considered an extremist."  This is a) potentially true, b) completely irrelevant, c) telling of a fascinating mindset, or d) all of the above?

The answer, of course, is d.

I'll skip past a and b, and go right to c.

What's wrong with being an extremist?  Extreme doesn't mean wrong.  It just means far from the norm.  Is that a bad thing?  It depends on how bad the norm is.  When the norm supports slavery, the norm is pretty bad.  Which leads me to this, which I cited in my piece:

Barry Goldwater had no problem being called an extremist.  And it is hard to disagree with the abstract sentiment.  Extremism in defense of liberty-- can that be bad?  Moderation in pursuit of justice-- can that be good?

The catch is this-- how do we define liberty or justice?  Not everyone has the same definitions.  To Sanders, pursuit of liberty means "positive liberty," in political science jargon.  Basically, you are only free to do X if you have the means to do X.  He pursues economic redistribution to maximize "positive liberty."  To a Goldwater follower, liberty means "negative liberty."  You are free to do X as long as the government doesn't stop you.  He pursued that by opposing wealth redistribution.

The linguistic difference is that while Goldwater and his followers have no problem being called extremists, Sanders supporters bristle at the term.  Why?  I think the answer comes from how they phrase the response.  Sanders supporters compare the US to other countries, with a positive assessment of other countries.

Advocates of "American exceptionalism," or, the belief that America is intrinsically different from and better than everywhere else, tend towards conservatism and libertarianism.  You won't hear chants of "USA! USA!" at a Sanders rally.  You will at a Trump rally.  So, even when Trump bashes the current state of the country, the phrasing is "make America great again."  The ideal towards which we look, in that mindset, is America's past, but still America.

It is no accident that Sanders supporters laud the politics of other countries while claiming that Sanders wouldn't be an extremist in those countries.

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