Extremism and Violence: On Letting the Lunatic Fringe Own the Paradigm

What has happened to the political discourse? This has been a concern of mine since the victory of Barack Obama and the disenfranchisement of modern conservatism. Yes, the political spectrum has swung from the Reagan conservatism of the last generation to, perhaps, a centrist liberalism represented by the Obama administration. Indeed, this is a paradigm shift, and should be an inspiration for social debate about the role of government, the responsibility of the economic sector to society, the sustainability of the commons, the costs and benefits of globalization, America’s status as a world leader not only economically and militarily, but also culturally and morally, among many other very important topics. I was looking forward to being a part of this discourse, in doing my small share on steering the future. I recognize that this is a crossroads era, and the direction that our nation chooses has rarely been as important as it is now. But I remain disillusioned by the course and contentious discourse I now find myself embroiled in.

From where I stand on the left it appears that the inmates are taking over the conservative asylum. Wrapped in the flag and standing on the Bible the defunct conservatives are spewing some of the most wretched and vile rhetoric I’ve ever heard. I’ve read about such vitriol, the whipping up of the madding crowd with fire and brimstone, with romantic fantasies of revenge, revolution and rampage. I just never thought I’d be in the middle of it. And I must admit, it does serve to elicit equally inflammatory response. When confronted with violent rhetoric I often find myself torn between a visceral, “go ahead and try it…see how far you get,” and a more rational understanding of the consequences of reactionary response. And that’s just the point, isn’t it.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. For almost thirty years conservatives have steered the political-economy. As a result, we’ve experienced a generation of greed being rewarded as the wealth gap widened to extents not seen since the 20’s. The social safety net has been so riddled with holes and so frayed that it hardly breaks one’s fall. Our economy has been a roller coaster ride with working Americans working harder while their pay stagnates and their benefits vanish. This culminating in almost total economic collapse. In 2006 and 2008 the people of the United States voted against the status quo…and yet largely voted for a somewhat milder version of the status quo. Despite this really tepid paradigm shift, one would think that Martians had invaded by the response from the turned out conservatives.

But the political discourse cannot be understood by simply looking at the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. This is about institutions, a once robust Republican Party now discredited, and a largely anemic Democratic Party thrust into the top echelons of power largely through default and desperation. It’s about the contest of power between our two dominant power institutions, the overlapping interests of the economic elite who pull the strings of both, and the growing social discontent consequent to the former variables.

Having taken the fall, deservedly so as far as this writer is concerned, the Republican Party and the more conservative elements they represent are understandably upset. They have been dethroned, their ideologies invalidated. They need a scapegoat, which isn’t hard to find—liberals. They need to make this scapegoat as scary as possible; after all, they’ve spent the last thirty years ridiculing the impotence of liberals. So the problem isn’t just liberalism, it’s progressivism, which is really a nice way of saying socialism, which everyone knows is just another way to say communism, which is a sister ideology with fascism. So liberals are fascist/communists. Scary stuff. By defining Democrats as the bastion of liberalism, and thus by default, the source of everything that is evil, there can be no compromise. Any victory by the enemy is a victory for tyranny.

Does the above paragraph sound extreme? Well it is. It is extremist rhetoric exemplified by the hate filled rhetoric that permeated the health care debate. It wasn’t that those driving the conservative discourse really believed their own bile about death panels and a government takeover of health care leading to a socialist dictatorship. No. It was about defeating the opposing institution for the sake of gaining power and voice in the direction of the social discourse. That’s all. Yet it is important that those who accept the conservative discourse believe the rhetoric as gospel. That Obama and Democrats and anything they do is one more step toward a totalitarian state. Period

The Republican and Democratic parties are reference groups through which we as individuals define ourselves. As the largest political reference groups in the nation they speak to and for millions of Americans and have a great deal to gain or to lose in the process, including monetary rewards, a guaranteed place among the power elite and the driving seat of national policy in the most powerful country in the world. That’s nothing to sneeze at!

So when a relatively tepid, moderate health reform bill was signed into law, the extremist discourse could not be assuaged by good sportsmanship and an “oh, well, maybe next time” response. It had to be followed by more extremism. And that’s the hook of the extremist way. Once the most extreme elements own the paradigm, once the competition has been defined as “the enemy” and the enemy is defined as the source of all that is bad and wicked, one can’t just shake hands after a contest and call it cool until the next issue. One must rail against the injustice and the damage that has been done. One must fight against the travesty that has been “shoved down the throat” of freedom loving Americans.

And that’s where the violence comes in. After all, the legitimate means through which we in the United States preserve our freedoms could not stop the political juggernaut of Obamacare and the Obama/Reid/Pelosi Triumvirate and their socialist agenda. The good cannot hope to win within a system controlled by the evil. Revolution is the only course of action. We must eradicate those elements that would destroy our freedoms. We must not retreat, rather we must reload! Extremism breeds extremism.

Now it’s very likely that those who are perpetuating violent rhetoric really are simply stimulating the base to get active. They are using rhetorical flourishes to inform the party faithful of the importance of these very dire issues. Perhaps. I don’t foresee Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck raising an army and laying siege to the Capital Building. What worries me is that the conservative movement, including the Republican Party and the Tea Party, represent millions of people with various levels of understanding, emotion, reason and…um…sanity. Indeed, almost all members of the conservative movement (or any movement for that matter) are well meaning folks with legitimate concerns and interests. They are reasonable people, perhaps under volatile circumstances, but overall reasonable. Notice I wrote “almost all.” Every major reference group has among its faithful those few who take terms like “reload” and “eradicate,” “riot” and “revolution,” seriously. These are the folks I’m concerned about.

I’m also concerned that violent rhetoric could also inspire violent reaction from the opposing institution. Liberals are also a large reference group with millions of adherents with various levels of understanding, emotion, reason and…um…sanity. Yes, almost all members of liberal movements are well meaning folks with legitimate concerns and interests. They are reasonable people, perhaps under volatile circumstances, but overall reasonable. However, one must note that again, I had to use the qualifier “almost all.” The vast majority of liberals understand that the fire and brimstone of the right is mostly hot air, rhetorical, or perhaps even an irrational response to an extremist political discourse. But when we see the offices of liberal congressmen receiving white powder in the mail (which turned out to be non-toxic), civil rights heroes called “nigger,” African American congressmen being spit upon or receiving faxes of nooses; when we hear right wing preachers talking about the blood of Christians running in the streets, most of us become, at the very least, concerned. Of course, there are some who might be inclined to say, as the Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenak said with obvious satire, “bring it on.” His point was well taken. If talking about health care justifies someone throwing a brick through my window then what am I justified in doing to them for throwing a brick through my window? What if I’m inclined to shoot back? What if I’m inclined to take “preemptive action?”

After all, violence isn’t exclusive to right wing extremists. Liberal extremists have a long history of violence. In fact, violence is foundational in the more extreme forms of liberalism, namely communism and anarchism. For instance, in 1919 a string of bombings and attempted bombings were carried out by anarchists. Anarchists were responsible for multiple assassinations of world leaders like King Humbert of Italy and President William McKinley, as well as the Archduke Ferdinand, the spark that set off World War I. In more contemporary times liberals have pandered to violent rhetoric of their own.

So the problem isn’t conservatism or liberalism. It’s extremism! Unfortunately, there are extremist elements in all such reference groups. The trick is to make sure that they don’t own the paradigms of any given discourse. When the extremists are beating the drums, the beat is that of war, of violence and revenge for some perceived injustice. When party pundits aim their rhetoric at the extremist fringe of their movement because that kind of speech gains attention, makes it on the evening news, inspires passion as well as response from competing institutions, they are only fanning the flames of a conflagration that they will not be able to control.

The only means of quelling such fires is if party leaders, especially those fanning the flames, make a concerted and concrete stand against the use of violence on the part of their own followers. They should not try to justify the violent rhetoric as a response to “totalitarian tactics” or such nonsense, for that provides the justification in the minds of those who would perpetuate violence. No. The movement leadership must affirm, in no uncertain terms, that violence is not the way to “win” and that they will not condone or support such behavior.

For my part, and I do not claim that this blog or the Journal of a Mad Sociologist is a leader of any movement, I will not condone the use of violence in perpetuating any agenda, be it liberal or conservative. I happen to think that we can debate, even argue, with conviction, with passion, even with anger, without the threat of or use of violence to make our point. Violence destroys the legitimacy of any movement.


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