The Power of Extremes

A principal achievement of the Tea Party has been the purging of moderates from the Republican party. The inescapable logic of ideology has provided the fuel for the primary fires that have burned centrists out of the Republican Congressional caucus. When Lindsey Graham (R-SC) can be described as a moderate, your party has changed–or, more appropriately, it has been changed, in this case from without and within.

The central problem the Republicans have brought upon themselves was neatly summed up a few weeks ago in an interview on the Daily Show. Noelle Nikpour said “we will always fight for less government.” On its face this seems like an innocuous statement: Republicans have claimed this ground for decades. But it actually says something more profound. “We will always fight for less government.” There is a momentum about this statement, and it reflects a lot of the sentiment around the recent radicalization of the Republican party. No matter what they cut now, they will want to cut more, with the eventual goal of destroying government entirely. (This is reminiscent of the famous, macabre Grover Norquist quote about shrinking government until it could be drowned in a bathtub.) There’s an ideological consistency about it, and many anarchists would welcome it as policy.

The key here is the momentum to keep shrinking government. No matter your party affiliation, it should be clear that this goes beyond a set of policy positions and demands a constant effort in one ideological direction. Even those who agree with this viewpoint should agree that it pushes the party that espouses it to an extreme.

The demand for purity (always smaller government) allows Republicans to one-up each other in conservatism. “You only want to cut $200 billion? I want to cut $300 billion!” and so on. To be sure, this hasn’t always been effective: ideology and demagoguery can only drag so many voters a certain distance from the center. But it has moved the center of the Republicans to the right and, as I’ve argued before, made compromise much harder.

There is also an elegant clarity about extremist politics that can be very attractive. Extremists say that our big problems require radical solutions, which has an appealing sense of proportionality between demands and responses. Ideology taken to its logical conclusion is a common way to produce these extremes. Ms. Nikpour’s position is simply the extension of “small government is good” to its logical conclusion: no government is best.

Moving the center of Republican politics has involved both the base and the elected officials tacking rightwards, and the second part of this process is cutting loose those who were not making the appropriate adjustment to starboard. I would argue that the emergence of leaders who are more conservative and a rightward shift in the base preceded this, as it produced the electoral alternatives to more centrist Republicans and the votes to put those alternative candidates in power. Either way, the result is clear: electoral success (in primaries and general elections) of candidates who are more conservative.


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