Monday, March 31, 2003

The Crazies

Well now. Kevin Drum seems to have kicked up quite a stir in certain portions of the blogosphere.

There are a number of issues that this mini-debate has touched on, but I think the most significant among them is the question "what is a moderate and what is an extremist?" Specifically, as it relates to liberals and the Democratic Party.

Well, let's start by saying that moderates and extremists (and here I'm talking about the Left wing; we'll get to the Right later) believe in a lot of the same general principles. The difference between them is that the extremists, in promoting one set of principles, compromise other principles that are equally or more important.

Stated as a definition: Within any group, the extremists are those who sacrifice principles held by the majority of the group in order to advance a single set of favored beliefs that the larger group considers of equal or lesser importance.

Examples of this include:

  • PETA and similar organizations that take an admirable abhorrence of cruelty visited upon creatures that cannot defend themselves, and go so far in fighting for this principle that they dismiss the basic distinction between human suffering and animal suffering. A lot of people would be disturbed by the treatment of animals in industrialized farming operations if they knew about them; however, anyone with even a basic acquaintance with reality is horrified to see such treatment compared to the Holocaust.

  • Organizations such as EarthFirst! and ELF that take legitimate concern for the environment and place it ahead of concern for the safety of other people (lumber workers) through practices such as tree spiking. Many people are concerned about the environment and the impact of various industrial practices upon it, but reasonable people understand that putting innocent people at risk is not an acceptable method of dealing with the problem.

  • War opponents who break into military bases and sabotage equipment. No matter how well-intentioned such people may be, sabotaging military equipment, especially now that the war has started, directly affects the safety of troops in the field. Such people place their desire to stop the war at all costs above concern for the individual soldiers whose lives depend on their equipment.

  • War opponents who channel their aversion to the horrors of war into a disdain for, or active hostility towards, military personnel. These are the people that shrug their shoulders and say "What did they expect?" in reference to the families of soldiers killed in action. Again, this is a placing of one set of principles (in this case, opposition to war) above another, equally important set (concern for soldiers -- who are, after all, individuals with just as much right to life as anyone else -- and their families). As the demonstrations of the past month have proved, many people oppose this war; excepting only the extremists, the vast majority of them also (correctly) support the troops.

Additionally, it is important to distinguish between "extreme" and "radical." In this context, a radical is someone who advocates ideas and policies that are different, new, or unusual. Therefore, while it is certainly possible to be a radical extremist (such as someone who advocates a violent Communist revolution), just because someone is a radical does not necessarily mean they are an extremist (the Civil Rights movement, for example).

This definition also takes into account the migration of a position from extreme to moderate. Fifty years ago, a Democrat advocating equal rights for gays would be considered extreme because, for a majority of Democrats, the belief that homosexuality was immoral outweighed the principle of equality for all. Now that that has been reversed, gay rights advocacy is a moderate position.


What are some of the implications of this?

The first, and easiest to address, is one of the side arguments between CalPundit and various heavy hitters on the Left side of the blogosphere. Kevin asserted that "part of their reaction to [his] post might be a result of not fully understanding just how far from the center some of us liberal bloggers are." In this he is absolutely correct.

I heard a term for the first time the other day, "incestuous amplification." It's a military term used to describe the situation you get when a commander only listens to the advice of those who agree with him. No matter how insane his plans, without getting dissenting opinions, said commander is likely to think that his plans are perfectly reasonable and likely to succeed.

This immediately made me think of bloggers in general; by their very nature, blogs tend to create communities of fairly like-minded people who read each other's work and, by linking back and forth, reinforce each other's ideas. This can have some amusing effects- witness the increasingly fanciful scenarios Right wing bloggers are coming up with to justify the more-than-slightly-psychotic fear that France might attack the United States. But it also has the effect of reinforcing various beliefs about what "common" opinion is. This leads to false assumptions about how representative various sections of the blogging community are of larger real-world groups.

It is important for Left wing bloggers to understand this, because "moderate" and "extreme" only have meaning in relation to a group. By inserting different groups into the equation, you end up with different definitions of "moderate" and "extreme."

If, when considering moderate vs. extreme, you substitute "leftie blogs" for "all real-world Democrats," a lot of extreme positions are going to suddenly seem moderate. If you then take these newly-moderate ideas out into the real world, you'll be in for quite a surprise when a good chunk of the Democratic party views you as crazy.

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? It doesn't matter. It's reality.


Another major implication addresses the issue of good liberalism vs. good politics. In order to be seen as moderate, and therefore attract the most support, one must properly frame an issue in terms of the fundamental values of the electorate. One of the primary reasons that the Right has ascended to power in the last twenty years is because they are much better at doing this than the Left. Take, for example, industrial deregulation. Instead of talking about health, safety, and environmental concerns, the Republican party (and, increasingly, members of the Democratic party) simply presents it as an economic growth issue. People who understand that massive deregulation has a detrimental effect on community health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment know that the those who advocate it are actually extremists. However, by minimizing those issues, such advocates are able to promote deregulation without appearing to compromise other values. Hence, they appear to be moderates.

And in politics, appearance is everything.

This does not mean that the ends justify the means and that Democrats should do or say anything in order to win elections. That is a significant part of the reason why the Democratic party is in such trouble- as the Right redefined the arguments to appeal to the voters, the Democrats, instead of fighting back, simply went along with what the voters seemed to want and said whatever was necessary to win. The end result of this is the current epidemic of quasi-Republicanism among the Democratic party.

The conventional wisdom is that the country is more conservative than it was thirty years ago; I'm not so sure. I think that there is a very good chance that, underneath the surface, core values haven't changed. What has changed is that a lot of conservative positions have been repackaged to seem more in tune with those values, and so more and more people are adopting them.

The good news is that this means liberals do not have to sacrifice their beliefs in order to regain power.

The bad news is that it means liberals do have a huge task in front of them: to reframe the debate in the face of thirty years of Right wing marketing.


So how should moderate liberal Democrats deal with the extremists on the Left? That seems to be the million dollar question.

The entire CalPundit vs. Apparently Everyone dust-up really picked up steam when Kevin listed several groups that he considers extremist which he thought hurt their own causes more than they helped them by alienating moderates. A discussion about the value of extremists ensued.

Extremists certainly have desirable qualities- it is the extremist groups that are among the most passionate and well organized. Beyond that, if all the extremists could ever rally around a single cause, they would make up a not-insignificant voting bloc. The Republican party realized this a long time ago, and set about consolidating all of its extremists under one tent. It seemed to be a mutually beneficial arangement; the GOP was reinvigorated, and the various fringe groups suddenly had access to real power.

It is important to remember, though, that in bringing the extremist elements into the tent, the Right wing moderates essentially ceded to them control of the GOP. The evolution of the Southern Strategy is a very good illustration of how this occurred.

So, in the end, it seems that the Left wing extremists should be brought into the fold, but on our terms- meshing with existing liberal causes while tailoring their rhetoric to better reflect mainstream liberal values.

The PETA types can come in if they alter their approach; instead of focusing on animal rights for the animals' sake and using such offensive over the top rhetoric, they can join the consumer protection crowd in yelling about unsanitary conditions in livestock facilities.

The environmental loonies can come in if they modify their rhetoric and stop committing arson.

The socialist/communist crowd can join up if they focus on specific areas where the state should have a bigger hand, rather than trying to kill off Capitalism; industrial regulation comes to mind.




How well would this work? I honestly don't know. But as it is, all we're doing is throwing tomatoes at the crazies while the Right does its damnedest to make it look like they represent us. If we can get them to work for us -- and shut up and quit making us look bad -- maybe we should make the effort?

Update: This post is so unwieldy because there's an argument going on between my gut and my brain. My gut says, "Screw the loonies! We don't need 'em!" but my brain thinks otherwise. So this was an attempt to reconcile the two with some sort of logic. I leave up to you to decide how successful it was.

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