The Value of ‘Extremism in the Defense of Liberty’

Liberal historian Michael Kazin, the editor of Dissent, has a perceptive piece in The New Republic that is provocatively titled: “A Kind Word for Ted Cruz: America Was Built on Extremism.”

Kazin certainly doesn’t agree with Cruz and those passionately opposed to Obamacare. But he does remind us that while “the vast majority of liberals, conservatives, and Washington journalists all seem to agree that ‘extremism’ is appalling and should be eradicated,” that view is simply wrong and historically shortsighted.

He discusses the “extremism” that drove the efforts to eradicate slavery, give women the right to vote, and end the Vietnam War. One lesson is that “sometimes, those who take an inflexible, radical position hasten a purpose that years later is widely hailed as legitimate and just. Extremism is the coin of conviction, whether virtuous or malign. It forces middle-roaders to crush the disrupter or adapt.”

Conservatives have also benefited in the long run from moments of “extremism.” Kazin points out that “ideological movements probably need to be immoderate if they hope to grow.” Indeed, his money quote discusses the modern conservative movement:

In 1964, two officials of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith wrote a book to alert the public about “the current Extreme Right phenomenon.” Included among their targets were the Young Americans for Freedom and the founder and editor of National Review. “When it comes to deploring the extreme and dangerous condition of the United States and of all Western civilization,” cracked the authors, “you have to get up pretty early in the morning to outdo William F. Buckley, Jr., the aging Boy Wonder of the American Right and a leading light of unabashed reaction.” Later that year, they must have felt vindicated when Barry Goldwater, in accepting the Republican nomination for president, declared “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” That oft-quoted phrase helped Lyndon Johnson win over 60 percent of the vote.   

However, the Goldwater campaign seeded the conservative movement that grew to unprecedented heights during the next two decades. By taking principled, rigid stands in opposition to the welfare state and the permissiveness of American culture, “extremists” on the right inspired thousands of activists of all ages and provided the GOP with what Phyllis Schlafly called “a choice” rather an “echo” of the New Deal order. In 1980, Ronald Reagan easily defeated Jimmy Carter with much the same rhetoric he had used to praise Goldwater 16 years earlier. You’re no longer an extremist when you win.

Not every battle waged by “extremists” wins, but they can be part of an eventually winning campaign. A month ago, no one could have predicted that Obamacare would be in such trouble, albeit not for reasons linked to the government shutdown but due to the hubris of its creators.

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