Extremism in religion and politics contains the seeds of its own destruction. The self-destruction of political extremism is already upon us. The Tea Party faithful force GOP candidates into ever more ridiculously extreme, and often self-contradictory positions that make it impossible for that candidate to win a general election. Nevertheless, the “base” continues to demand more extremism, and candidates fall in line, becoming both more hypocritical and unelectable.
The instability of religious extremism may be an even better illustration. The premise of the “Rapture,” for example, the idea that the end of history is upon us and the very few true Christian believers are about to be taken directly up into heaven, was much in the news in 2011.
Such end times predictions show the pitfalls of extremist thinking. When the promised vision does not arrive, as happened with Harold Camping’s prediction of the end times in 2011, disillusionment and ridicule follow. Meanwhile, the real problems that threaten us remain unaddressed as the Camping debacle illustrates. Camping’s antics made Christian thinking about the end times, what is called eschatology, seem absurd. Yet, the question of ‘where are we going in history?’ is not irrelevant. But his extremism took both serious religious and political questions off the table.
Here are some other reasons why extremism is prone to self-destruction:
Ideological purity destroys consensus
The lure of “end-times” thinking is that it is a vision of purity. The promise of end times thinking is that when that perfect future arrives, there will be no more contradictions or questions. But ideological purity can never be achieved in the present, so political (and religious) consensus cannot be achieved. Beyond a vague political agenda of ‘get government off our backs’ and a ‘values’ ethic of homophobia and anti-abortion, there is no positive platform on the far right for dealing with the economy or with the broad differences Americans have on personal and social ethics.
The ‘get government off our backs’ agenda itself contains the kinds of internal contradictions that will lead to the destruction of extremism. For example, 40 percent of Medicare recipients swear they have never used government programs. Yet, at some level, the continuation of Medicare is a given, even for the right-wing “base.” Extremist political proposals to radically change Medicare, therefore, continuously blow up in the faces of conservatives, often in contradictory ways. When Newt Gingrich surged in the polls this fall, the Romney campaign decided to run to the right of Gingrich by embracing the “Ryan” plan. This plan had earlier been accurately characterized by Newt Gingrich as “right-wing social engineering.” The extremist base was outraged by Gingrich’s description; Gingrich disavowed that statement, apologized, and his campaign tanked for the first time. Then Gingrich ran further to the right, and Romney further still. The result? Americans have no idea what these candidates might or might not do with Medicare and their poll numbers are either falling or static.
The evangelical base is also no longer united on the so-called values issues. The anti-abortion, anti-contraception “personhood” ballot initiative failed in Mississippi in 2011. Suddenly the consequences of such an extreme position became clearer—the reproductive freedoms Americans from left to right enjoy, especially contraception and in vitro fertilization, seemed at risk. And, of course, increasing numbers of Americans accept that gay Americans and their right to equal treatment under the law, so homophobia is not the automatic winner that it was in the past for the right-wing.
Economic inequality trumps ideology
A rapidly accelerating income inequality is challenging right-wing extremism. As Thomas Edsall said so well in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “Conservatism’s strength, its stress on the value of individual responsibility, is also its central weakness.” This is the internal contradiction that results from taking too extreme a position on government help for those who are being crushed by an economics of inequality and an out-of-control banking system. Rants to “make yourself more employable” fall on deaf ears to the 55 year-old who is suddenly out of work through no fault of his own. The anxiety and anger of this growing segment of the population is unaddressed by the old ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ rhetoric. And people know darn well that ‘corporations are people too’ is an absurdity.
In 2011, a giant crack appeared in the ‘reduce taxes on the wealthy to improve the economy’ narrative that had so dominated the terrible first decade of the new millennium. The dramatic success in #OccupyWallStreet in changing the national narrative from reducing taxes on the wealthy, and obsessing about debt, to the accelerating inequality in the United States is the central reason why right-wing extremism will tank in 2012.
Income inequality hits home in the majority of American households now. The Congressional Budget Office study released in October of 2011 showed that the wealth of the top 1 percent has nearly tripled since 1979. CBO found that, between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top 1% of households, a quarter of that for the next 19 percent, and then was nearly flat, adjusted for inflation, for the majority of Americans. The accompanying chart has been shown on numerous news programs and, of course, was reproduced on many #OWS signs.
Half of all Americans now live at or below the poverty level. There is no politically extremist rhetoric that can hide from an individual or family that they are not making it in today’s America.
This has become not just a political issue, but a profound issue of religious morality and a site of religious struggle. My On Faith post, “It’s not class warfare, it’s not Christianity” provoked a huge debate because the crisis in American economics and morality is now threatening to become obvious to all. I believe that is why that particular post received such a hugely negative, and hugely positive response at the same time.
Overreaching always ends badly
Political or religious extremism is overreaching. The fundamental fault line that runs through extremism is rooted in the sin of pride, of hubris, of overreaching and arrogant presumption. This world is far from perfect, and the art of religion, or politics, is to recognize that we must live with all the complexities and contradictions of this fallenness. I often tell students in the senior theology class to be careful when they create a theological system where everything fits. When everything fits neatly into a theological or political system, you’ve broken or distorted something to make it fit. The world is not simple or neat no matter how much we wish it so.
Thus, my problem with predicting the self-destruction of extremism is that history is not all that certain or simple. Also, when an extremist ideology self-destructs it is not pretty or neat. A lot of collateral damage will result if this implosion actually occurs.
But I will stand by my thesis. I believe the promise of a new millennium starts now, after the completion of its first decade. Out of the debacle that extremism has created in the first ten years, the next ten years will see a move back from that abyss and the strengthening of the movement, already begun, that emphasizes greater income equality, human rights, and respect for religious diversity.
I hope I’m not wrong. Happy New Year.