A banner encouraging people to support a local Brexit campaign hangs on the side of a building in Altrincham, Britain May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Extremism begets extremism

The Brookings Institution
5 min readOct 6, 2016


By Darrell West

Excerpted from “Megachange

In today’s world, domestic and foreign policy interact in sometimes disturbing ways. People of the world no longer are isolated and cut off from distant lands. Through instant communication, they can see injustice and unfairness, whether it’s committed on the other side of the planet or is directed at members of their own racial or ethnic group, gender, religious faith, or social class. Provocations in one place can set off political disturbances far from the original scene.

Through modern-day technology, such as the Internet and social media, contemporary events can ripple around the globe and affect people’s impressions. Many countries today contain a heterogeneous set of races, religions, ethnicities, and political viewpoints. Amidst this kaleidoscope of orientations, people in one place pay attention to how like-minded individuals are treated elsewhere. In this situation, it is easy to feel outrage over real or perceived injustice.

While there sometimes can be cycles of virtuosity in which good deeds in one place inspire similar deeds elsewhere, it also is the case that bad deeds can cause vitriol elsewhere. Extremism and violence are especially prone to generating overreaction because they poison the well for societal or international cooperation. It is surprisingly easy to spread “misinformation” or “unverified rumors” through online media, especially when people’s information sources are narrow in nature and the social system is polarized.

A police officer intervenes to keep an anti-immigration protester (R) apart from people taking part in an anti-Donald Trump, pro-immigration protest in the Manhattan borough of New York December 10, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks has written about “‘motive attribution asymmetry,’ in which proponents of each side of an argument attributed their own group’s aggressive behavior to love, but the opposite side’s to hatred.” He argues that “millions of Americans believe that their side is basically benevolent while the other side is evil and out to get them.” This kind of attribution inevitably hardens views about both domestic and foreign adversaries.

In this situation, it is also easy for political leaders to point to excesses in other places to justify their own extreme steps. They denounce real or imagined adversaries and use their own strong response to solidify political support. Extremist attacks also can be used to explain the need to spend more on defense, engage in surveillance of enemies, or even go to war. What Brooks calls the “victimhood culture” makes it difficult for people to understand the viewpoints of others or see that foes might have reasonable or valid positions. Empathy and tolerance are in short supply in a world filled with extremism and zealotry.

Empathy and tolerance are in short supply in a world filled with extremism and zealotry.

In today’s world, there are few penalties for taking extreme political positions. Some people glorify radical ideas as “out-of-the-box” or bold and visionary. Playing to the base has become a common tactic. Political leaders use strategies that target the angriest and most vocal among their own supporters; this is one way of being assured of core support. In the words of political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, the “race to the base” has become the dominant political strategy in many countries.

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump carry signs before entering a campaign rally in Lynden, Washington, U.S., May 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Some argue that political polarization makes it difficult to adopt large-scale remedies due to the tendency of democratic institutions to be gridlocked. But the experience of recent decades shows that legislative inaction also creates frustration and encourages leaders to think of new solutions. Ironically, political paralysis can lead to far-reaching ideas that are revolutionary in nature. High levels of polarization can push the public’s appetite for change, sometimes even just for the sake of change. Radical ideas that previously would have been discredited now garner serious debate. This was confirmed by a Quinnipiac University survey in 2016 that found two-thirds of U.S. voters agreed with the statement that “the old way of doing things no longer works and we need radical change.”

High levels of polarization can push the public’s appetite for change, sometimes even just for the sake of change.

Polarization speeds up change in another way, too. Political parties fight to control the government, and when they attain power they realize they have limited time to get things done. In a gridlocked epoch, people are impatient for action. As explained by Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, “The temperament of the electorate is getting shorter. The American public is no longer giving people time to turn the ship around. They’re wanting it done in two years. So in two years if we don’t perform, the same kind of wave election is coming back in 2016 except in the opposite direction.”

Impatience leads politicians to confront adversaries, advocate massive reforms, and — for the short period when they hold a political advantage — attempt far-reaching policies that they think will transform the country. Rather than generating no change or small-scale alterations, gridlock and polarization encourage attempts at large-scale policymaking. Leaders often have just a few months or a year where they are in control of government and therefore in a position to act. If they don’t take action, someone else is likely to do so and gain an advantage over them. As noted in a speech by singer Bob Dylan, “Times always change. They really do. And you have to always be ready for something that’s coming along and you never expected it.

Purchase Megachange by Darrell West, releasing October 18th.

Darrell M. West is vice president and director of Governance Studies and holds the Douglas Dillon Chair. He is founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings and Editor-in-Chief of TechTank. His current research focuses on educational technology, health information technology, and mobile technology. Prior to coming to Brookings, West was the John Hazen White Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University.



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