Nazis, Communists, Klansmen and Others on the Fringe

What is Political Extremism?

By Laird Wilcox

If it’s a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed?

Kahlil Gibran, 1923.

Roger Scruton, in the Dictionary of Political Thought defines “extremism” as:

  1. Taking a political idea to its limits, regardless of unfortunate repercussions Impracticalities, arguments and feelings to the contrary, and with the intention not only to confront, but to eliminate opposition.
  2. Intolerance toward all views other than one’s own.
  3. Adoption of means to political ends which show disregard for the life, liberty and human rights of others.

A related view is found in the work of Milton Rokeach, whose book The Open and Closed Mind is a classic in the field of dogmatic thinking, prejudgment and intolerance. He observes:

To study the organization of belief systems, we find it necessary to concern ourselves with the structure rather than the content of beliefs. The relative openness or closedness of a mind cuts across specific content; that is, it is not uniquely restricted to any particular ideology, or religion, or philosophy. … Thus, a basic requirement is that the concepts to be employed in the description of belief systems must not be tied to a particular belief system; they must be constructed to apply to all belief systems.

These views basically reflect my own experience that political “extremism” in the behavioral sense is much more a matter of style than content. In the forty years I have been studying political groups of the left and right, I have found that many people can hold radical or unorthodox views and still entertain them in a more or less reasonable, rational, and non-dogmatic manner, fully cognizant of honest disagreement among people of good will. On the other hand, I have known people whose views were in the political “mainstream” but who presented them in a shrill, uncompromising, bullying, or distinctly authoritarian manner. The latter exhibited an unambiguous behavioral extremist mentality while the former demonstrated only ideological unorthodoxy, which is hardly to be feared in a free society.

The use of “extremist” as an epithet tends to confuse this issue. If the term is to have a legitimate meaning it’s important to be clear on what it is. As used here, it’s taken to mean anyone who exhibits an “extremist” behavioral style, examples of which will be given. What one wants to avoid is the name-calling trap, as in calling someone a “pervert” or a “subversive,” based primarily on the fact that you don’t like them or disagree over some issue. Using emotionally-loaded epithets are characteristic of what one should be trying to avoid. Political ideologues are fully aware of the thought-stopping power of name-calling and labeling, and often attempt one-sided definitions of “extremism” that condemn the views of their political opponents while leaving their equally strident and intolerant behavior untouched. For the term to have any objective meaning, it must apply equally across the board. The late Robert F. Kennedy recognized this when he observed,

What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.

An important point here is that the extremist behavioral style is not found only on the statistical fringes of the political or religious spectrum, but sometimes in the “middle” as well. An individual or group that is uncompromisingly “centrist” may be far more dogmatic and prejudiced than someone with more radical or unorthodox views but who expresses them in an open, tolerant and amiable manner.

In many years of observing the behavior of political ideologues of the right and left in American politics I have compiled a list of behavioral traits that appear to be commonplace among the more strident, intolerant and dogmatic among them. To the extent that they represented a “threat” to anything, it was through this expressed stridency, intolerance and dogmatism, and most generally in the sense of their incapacity to participate in the rational give and take that democratic systems require. Only in very unusual cases do they represent any sort of physical threat to the general safety. This list has been passed around among other observers of this phenomenon over the years and there’s a general consensus of its general validity. These traits are:

  1. The use of slogans, buzzwords, epithets, and clichés are common among people of extremist temperament. These devices allow complex issues and problems to be dramatically simplified. Cognitive shortcuts of this kind are useful in order to suppress awareness of troublesome facts and counterarguments and to bolster group solidarity.
  2. An emphasis on emotional responses and corresponding devaluation of reasoning and rational analysis is a common extremist trait. Extremists have an unspoken reverence for propaganda and persuasion, which they may call “getting educated” or “consciousness-raising.” Harold D. Lasswell, in his book Psychopathology and Politics says, “The essential mark of the agitator is the high value he places on the emotional responses of the public.”
  3. Extremists often practice and openly advocate flagrant double standards. They generally tend to judge themselves and their allies in terms of their intentions, which they view generously, and judge their opponents by their acts, which they view very critically. This is known as the sinister attribution error, referring to the tendency to attribute bad intentions or untrustworthiness to the oppositional other. They want you to accept their claims on faith or authority, but demand strict proof from those of their opponents. They tend to view arguments that call their premises into question as hostile propaganda or provocation but use similar arguments when attacking others.
  4. Confusing of mere similarity with essential sameness is a common extremist trait. Hence, for the extremist socialized medicine may be “just like” Communism or the appearance of ethnic pride is “just like” Nazi Germany. Instead of trying to understand complex phenomena in its own context, they tend to associate it with a God word or a Devil word in order to stereotype and reduce cognitive complexity.
  5. Extremists often attack the character or reputation of an opponent rather than deal with the more concrete issues and views they present. Through this kind of character assassination or ad hominem attack, they may question motives, qualifications, associations, personality, mental health and so on as a diversion. In some cases these matters may not be entirely irrelevant, but they shouldn’t obscure the issues in question.
  6. Some extremists tend to identify themselves in terms of their enemies, i.e., whom they hate and who hates them. Accordingly, extremists may become emotionally bound to their opponents in a strange symbiotic relationship, where their lives have meaning primarily in terms of conflict and opposition to one another. Because they view their opponents as unprincipled and powerful, they tend, perhaps subconsciously, to emulate them and adopt their tactics.
  7. A Manichean worldview tends to characterize many extremists, in which they see the world in terms of absolutes of good and evil, with no middle ground, gray areas or intermediate positions. Issues tend to be framed in a strongly polarized sense of right and wrong, with the “right” position happily coinciding with their interests. All issues tend to become “life and death” issues. Their slogan is “those who are not for me are against me.”
  8. Hypersensitivity and vigilance are hallmarks of the extremist style. They may perceive hostile innuendo in casual comments; imagine hostility and rejection “concealed” in honest disagreement and dissent, and manage to discover “subtle” manifestations of one thing or another in ordinarily innocuous events.
  9. An inclination toward groupthink permeates extremist organizations. They are prone to the kind of inward-looking group cohesiveness that Irving Janus discussed in his book, Victims of Groupthink. This involves a strong tendency to conform to group norms and to preserve solidarity at the expense of dealing with conflicting evidence and disquieting observations or criticisms that may call into question their shared assumptions and beliefs of the group. Reality testing is often diminished among extremists.
  10. Extremists tend to believe that it’s OK to do what would otherwise be instantly recognized as bad things in the service of a good cause. This may include shouting down speakers, harassment, intimidation, threats, censorship, and even violence in some cases. Defeating heretics, deniers, critics or other “enemies” becomes an all-encompassing goal to which other values become subordinate. In this case, for extremists the end justifies the means.
  11. Finally, extremists often have problems tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty. Indeed, the ideologies and belief systems extremists tend to adopt often represent grasping for certainty and absolute truth and security in an uncertain world. The anxiety and uncertainty attendant to making complex decisions and value judgments is overcome by quick decisions based on strong feelings, tradition, patriotism, ideology, or some other defining abstraction.

Adapted from Nazis, Communists, Klansmen, and Others on the Fringe by John George and Laird Wilcox, Prometheus Books, 1992

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