The Danger of ‘Extremism’

The Danger of ‘Extremism’

This editorial was originally published in the September 24, 1964 iss ue of The Nation. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on presidential politics, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive–an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.


Senator Goldwater has said that a political platform is typically “a packet of lies and misinformation.” Had he been willing to go to the limit in candor, he could have added that national conventions, in toto, are outstanding examples of the art of sowing confusion in order to reap the votes of the thoughtless. Since most adult Americans are perfectly aware of this, little lasting harm is normally done by platform claptrap.

The fight over “extremism” at San Francisco was an exception, and liberals should beware of its possible results. The contest was one phase of the conquest of the Republican Party by a coalition which includes some Taft-type moderates–George M. Humphrey, for instance–but also embraces the genocidal lunatics who would like to have seen Barry drop the bomb on the Soviets at the climax of his inaugural speech, the white backlashers, the impeach-Earl-Warren mob, et al. The majority of Republican moderates are not reconciled to this transition, hence the Scranton-Rockefeller-Romney attack on “extremists.” But there is a potential double danger in this excoriation of the far Right and the far Left (the latter included more out of custom than because it represents any present domestic threat). In the first place, the word “extremist” is undesirably vague and can be made to include anyone of whom the speaker strongly disapproves. And in the second place, the anxiety to banish such elements from the party can readily be perverted into a move to exclude them from the American forum of ideas. Extremist views are not only inevitable in a free society, their unhobbled dissemination is essential to its health.

In his valiant attempt to secure condemnation of the John Birch crowd at the convention, Governor Rockefeller said the right things, but the later effects may be other than what he intended. Extremism per se is not wrong; there are times when it is necessary. In the eyes of the Tories, the Founding Fathers were extremists. Today, we cannot become a middle-class monolith. The entire spectrum, from Birchites to Mao-type Communists, must be free to press their cause by such argument as they can muster. All must obey the law, all must be equal before it.

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