I’ll be spending the 4th of July holiday with family. I published this column last year on Independence Day and it prompted a lot of discussion, so I thought I’d post it again this year. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday. Regular posting will resume again on Monday.
The 4th of July holiday puts me in mind of extremists.
After all, that’s exactly what our founding fathers were. They were extremists because they didn’t believe in the “divine right” of monarchs to rule over the rest of us. They were extremists because they believed in constitutionally-restrained government and individual rights. They were extremists because they thought the people ought to have the right to govern themselves..
They were extremists because they felt the American colonies ought to be a nation independent of Great Britain.
We take things like voting and property rights and due process for granted today, but in 1776 the idea that these were “unalienable rights” the masses were “endowed” with was, in a word, extremism.
Perhaps it is fitting, then, that we celebrate the declaration of those rights at the dawn of our nation with excess culminated by exploding copious amounts of explosives. But I digress.
My purpose in bringing up the extremism of our nation’s founders is to contrast it with the way the term “extremism” is thrown around by politicos today.
As one example, North Dakota Democrats seem to think the problem with their messaging before the past couple of years (and they have a problem, because their party couldn’t be any more marginalized) is that it hasn’t been strident enough. So their watch word has become “extreme.” Everything Republicans do is “extreme.” The abortion laws are “extreme.” The tax cuts are “extreme.”
I’m on the Democrat-NPL email list, and during the legislative session they sent out no fewer than 62 email blasts that contained at least invocation of “extreme.” The practice has continued since the session too.
But North Dakota Democrats aren’t the only ones who have made “extreme” a favorite part of their vocabulary. All we hear about at the national level is about one group of extremists or another doing something extremely extreme.
Then there’s the variations on the theme, such as the “anti-government” jab that some commentators and newspaper editors are fond of. Opposing a tax hike might make you “anti-government” in the eyes of some, but the term “anti-government” makes one think of someone nutty weirdo living in a cabin in the American outback somewhere (or maybe, in another age, an opponent of monarchy).
The motivation behind these pejoratives which get tossed about so freely (“racist” is another one) is a desire to marginalize.
Political debate is hard. Convincing people is difficult. The marketplace of ideas isn’t easily navigated. Easier than debate, easier than working to convince people by bandying your ideas against those of others, is to simply write off your opponents as “extreme.”
Because extremists aren’t people we have to listen to, right? Extremists rant. Extremists make up conspiracy theories. Extremists believe wacky, nonsensical things (like the existence of property rights). Extremists are dangerous, so we write them off. We don’t include them in our political debate.
But we should remember that terms like “extremist” are subjective. What North Dakota Democrats see as “extreme” seems fairly mainstream for most voters in the state who consistently choose Republicans.
King George III might have used the term “extremist” to describe George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or John Adams, but here in America we honor those men as heroes.
We’re all extremists for our point of view, aren’t we? Dicitionary.com defines extreme as “of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average.” But who gets to define what is “ordinary” or “average” for everyone else?
We all see ourselves as being average. That’s why there’s always so much talk about the “middle class” and the “average citizen” in politics. We all respond to those terms, because that’s how we see ourselves.
How about the next time we hear some bomb-thrower describe something or someone as “extreme” we recognize that this person, whatever their political stripes, is deploying a political tactic and nothing else.
So this holiday weekend, hoist a glass of your favorite beverage and shoot off a few bottle rockets (which have to be purchased outside of North Dakota thanks to our legislature) in honor of extremism.
After all, it’s extremism we have to thank for making our country what it is today.