I think it might be time for an update to the bipolar structure of American politics. Our dual-party left-right structure is so deeply instilled it’s easy to imagine it reflects a fundamental truth about the structure of the universe, akin to how F = ma was burned into my memory by a high-school physics experience. As it turns out many perfectly respectable countries have multi-party and even single-party systems. It may be easy for an American to scorn these other arrangements, just another example of American cultural superiority, and forget that the binary structure we consider as invariant is actually quite recent.
When I was a kid growing up in Michigan I was in the high school “Youth in Government” club. I remember looking deep inside myself and deciding that I was a “liberal Republican,” aligning with the charismatic government teacher and club organizer, Mr. Steven Stanley. The year was 1981. The speed limit was 55 miles per hour. The Chrysler K-Car was exciting and new. And Ronald Reagan was beginning his first term as President. While I recall being vaguely pro-business, I hesitated on the choice between Democrat and Republican. Choice of party seemed like choosing a favorite baseball team, all personalities and branding, not a choice of intellectual substance. If I was uncertain about party I was more confident about being liberal. I was pro-civil rights, pro-environment and pro-education. Immigration was not even on the roadmap then, and terrorism was something happening far away and involving Communists or Catholics. My decision was not influenced by abortion or sexual identity, subjects still taboo for Michigan high school discourse in 1981. Liberal meant something real, a humanism that appealed to me and that opposed dark anti-liberal forces, ghosts of my dim childhood memories.
If you are a child of the 21st century, you may be confounded by the notion of a “liberal Republican.” Today the juxtaposition of “liberal” and “Republican” seems illogical, practically impossible. And yet it was quite normal in 1981. Politics was more complicated then, a claim I assert not from memory but empirically, for while the memories of my political preferences fade I don’t see how the now oxymoronic “liberal Republican” could be possible without more political diversity than allowed by today’s strict dichotomy. While “conservative” and “liberal” were operational concepts of the time, they identified an orthogonal dimension to party affiliation. “Republican” didn’t automatically imply “conservative” in 1981. It did imply a belief in the good of economic growth, and that the vehicle for that goodness was a healthy business environment, not just stronger unions or bigger social programs. I believe Ronald Reagan deserves the credit for the modern, bipolar architecture of American politics. Reagan opened politics to the masses by simplifying it to the point that anyone could understand, or at least believe they understood, and feel like they belonged. An icon among American conservatives, Reagan gave the party the clarity and focus that has guided it to this day. He gave his public compelling, simple ideas, like tax cuts, supply-side economics and the war on drugs. After Jimmy Carter slowed us down to 55 miles per hour and narrated the grueling ordeals of Three Mile Island and the Iranian hostage crisis, America was ready for Reagan’s simple and positive message. Reagan was a president for the masses, showing how Republicans could build the kind of popularity and even populist appeal that was otherwise reserved for civil rights crusaders, astronauts and football stars.
While the right vs. left structure of American politics reflects the same brutal simplicity, the conservative focus did more than give Reagan a device to focus his party. This dichotomy begat the basic structure that has enabled the subsequent polarization of our political debate. Contemplating the landscape of the Trump presidency, “right” and “left” seem like an institution. But this model is showing signs of age, and as un-American as this may sound to some, I question whether we are due for a new model. As an engineer I appreciate the guidance “as simple as possible, but no simpler.” The binary model is unhelpful if it doesn’t match what happens on the ground. I think extremism may be more important than conservative vs. liberal bias, and my present goal is to explain why.
A pivot from the politics of right vs. left to extremism vs. moderation might be tricky without a working definition for extremism. In his new book on the subject J. M. Berger likens extremism to pornography, quoting Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it.” Berger describes the academic model of “social identity theory” which uses a notion of an in-group and and out-group. These groups can be defined based on race, class, religion or other beliefs, with extremism arising when the in-group believes in an existential threat posed by the out-group as a cause for hostile action. While this seems sensible in Berger’s study of violence and oppression, his definition is a bit extreme for my preferences, as it tends to exclude non-violent actions such as voting and peaceful protest. For my working definition, extremism is a system of beliefs that:
- defies common social norms
- is beyond that supported by objective fact
- is a basis for action
Given this formulation, extremism can relate to a personal preference accompanied by action, such as veganism, ultra-marathoning or bigamy, which would tend to be out-of-scope for Berger. “Common social norms” does not imply a majority or minority. In pre-World War II Italy, Fascism developed from a minority to a majority belief. The requisite “extreme” beliefs requires a point of reference but it can be foreign or historical. A patriotic British subject in 1776 might reasonably have construed the beliefs of American revolutionaries as extremists, even though we take them for granted now.
If a belief is not supported by objective fact then it can either contradict objective fact or it can be beyond the frontier of human knowledge. When the American revolutionaries bravely declared “all men are created equal” perhaps it was an asserted belief, not a product of scientific inquiry. Indeed the belief system of that time differentiated men of common European races from women and from non-European races. This may have been consistent with 18th century scientific knowledge even though it is hard to support with the science of today.
As child of The Age of Reason I am reluctant to consider a belief based on objective fact as extremist. The work product of competent scientific practice is “fact” and “reality” and it seems paradoxical for reality to be extremist. Similarly, professional journalism, incorporating best practices like fact checking, timely corrections and acknowledgement of alternative points of view also has special status. Extremism requires a denial of reason, a belief held despite objective fact.
Given this proposed definition, beliefs held in the absence of action are not extremist. Consider these hypothetical groups:
- A group that believes in the abolition of fossil fuels based on current climate science.
- A group that believed in equal rights for men and women in 18th century America
- A group that believes in unequal rights for men and women in 21st century America
Are these groups extremist? If they started a war I think we could agree they were, but in the absence of action, the holding of these beliefs seems irrelevant, so by the above definition they would not be extremist.
Given this working definition, let’s consider why left vs. right is inadequate as an architecture for modern American politics. The “Left” and “Right” structure would be more useful if it matched the forces engaging on the ground. Maybe it used to, but how can this simple model apply when key participants play both sides? In 2016 we saw Russian influence simultaneously stoking conservative angst with Ten GOP, Heart of Texas and South United, while also promoting civil-rights oriented causes in the name of Black4Black or LGBT United. Such activity is reported to have continued into 2018. With such tactics their strategy can not be as simple as right or left. Some might conclude these confusing efforts are just the work of goofy Russians, but considering that they have been perfecting this practice for over 100 years, one should perhaps assume some level of competence and impact.
But it’s not just Russian operatives that burn the candle from both ends. Even our domestic participants tend to exaggerate and even fabricate opponents when the factual substance of the opposition is inadequate to support a political attack. Name-calling is practiced by both right and left and is a common manifestation of such exaggeration. Spins like “Little Rocket Man,” “Pocahontas,” and the “Failing New York Times” set a new standard for such craft. In more extreme cases, hoaxes like Obama birtherism and Pizzagate create opportunities for political leverage built on unreality. These examples demonstrate how name-calling and hoaxes leverage extremist unreality as alternative to fact. If we allow political discourse to devolve from the Age of Reason to the Age of Untethered Political Fantasy, then Extremism, not conservative politics, will be the defining political feature of our time.
Momentarily setting aside current politics, right vs. left is of secondary historical relevance compared extremism. If one considers the political movements that shaped modern history, extremism, not conservative or liberal bias, is the dominant theme. Karl Marx furnished the philosophical pretext for the Bolshevik party in Russia, leading to a pseudo-leftist revolution that was a defining event of the 20th century. The Maoist revolution in China is a further example of pseudo-leftist extremism shaping our modern world. While countries like Spain, France, and Italy have incorporated moderate versions of Socialism, the extremist aspects of Russian and Chinese socialism, including the violence and the thorough implementation of state ownership, set these examples apart.
In contrast to and in reaction to these leftist revolutions, extremist right-wing movements set the stage for global conflict. Right-wing Fascism in Italy united nationalism, racism and the Catholic church as a force to oppose Socialism, leveraging a well of racism from events like the Dreyfus affair. Mussolini developed the pattern that was imitated and embellished by Adolf Hitler in Germany’s National Socialist “Nazi” movement. While these extreme right and extreme left movements were key inputs in World War II, the eventual dominance of moderate societies in America, France and Britain ultimately set the direction of Western culture for the rest of the century. Even then, reaction from the extreme right to real and imaginary Socialist threats continued in phenomena like McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War.
The political importance of extremism is not limited to the 20th century. Religious intolerance has played a pivotal role throughout most of recorded history. The Holy Roman Empire suspended the intellectual and social advances of relatively moderate Roman and Greek regimes. It established the theocratic structures by which much of Europe was ruled during The Dark Ages, a period punctuated by brutal campaigns such as The Crusades and The Spanish Inquisition, violence rationalized by conservative Christian extremism. This brutality of religion corrupted by extremism is mirrored in modern Christian terrorism, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Army of God, as well as 21st century acts of Islamic Extremism and attempts to establish a modern Islamic Caliphate. Meanwhile, from the left, Yugoslavian, Cuban and Venezuelan socialism elevated proclaimed champions of social justice with a promise to wipe-out corruption and deliver prosperity. Unfortunately the results ultimately produced by these charismatic leaders fell short of their rhetoric.
The blend of extreme racism and economic self-interest has propelled many of the largest genocides in human history, from Carthage to the Cathars to the Holocaust to Myanmar and with many points in between. Perhaps extremism and genocide pair by nature, with genocide difficult to justify based on objective rational thought. When oppression falls short of genocide it can still be cruel. Extremism underlies the ideology and ignorance behind the repression of Muslims in Chechnya and Xingjiang. In America it supported the persecution of Africans, Native Americans, and wave upon wave of European and Asian laborers. The common thread across all of these humanitarian disasters is extremism, not conservative or liberal bias.
A third concern with right vs. left as the structure for political discourse is that, when combined with polarization, it tends to promote a false choice, reinforcing extremism and extremist viewpoints, while vacating the space for moderation and compromise. American political discourse is a living example, with this essay as a demonstration of how hard it is to have a conversation about moderation. When the public approaches political affiliation with the intellectual depth of choosing a favorite baseball team, the option of “choose both teams” is unlikely to prevail. Maybe the middle team would do better if it was given a decent name.
Lest I become extreme in my critique of extremism, I’d like to explicitly acknowledge that extremist views are okay when they do not impact other people’s legitimate rights. A person can generally have an extreme preference for modern architecture, or a preference for a certain style of food or music to the exclusion of other types of food or music with minimal social harm.
I tried a few names for this essay before deciding to invoke the notion of “deprecate.” In software engineering “deprecate” implies the pending retirement of a software component, often while it is still in use. This can create an awkward situation for dependent systems, forcing an untimely replacement effort, and sometimes forcing a transition onto a new system that is incompatible or even incomplete. Commonly deprecation decisions are not democratic; rather they are made by some combination of senior engineers and managers, presumed benevolent but not infallible. The common joke among Google engineers is: “We have two kinds of systems, systems that are deprecated and systems that aren’t ready yet.”
America may not be ready to deprecate right vs. left, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t time for a change. Without taking anything away from the glorious accomplishments of western civilization, one can argue rationally that the situation is dire. Apart from the endangered status of rational political thought, it seems we have already annihilated more than half the animals on the planet and tipped the scales of nature towards an irreversible and disruptive trajectory. The bipolar syndrome that has seized American politics is not helping us prepare for the future. As awkward as we may find the ambiguity and mediocrity of moderation, it may be our best hope for continuing the Age of Reason. America needs to remember it’s okay to be moderate. We need to feel welcome in the middle.
Brad Chen is an engineering manager at YouTube.
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