THE RADICAL CENTER….In for a penny, in for a pound. Ampersand makes this comment about moderation vs. extremism:

Moderates like Kevin have always been with us, sensibly telling us not to rock the boat, to wait, to be patient. We mustn’t make people uncomfortable!….But although they’ve always wanted to get rid of us, they never have. Which is a good thing, because every good idea liberalism has ever had has come from people who were extremists in their time.

This is a fair statement. Surely liberal progress is largely the result of loud, pushy activists who eventually drag the rest of us moderates along, right? Just think of the anti-slavery faction in the North prior to the Civil War.

But is it really true that “every good idea liberalism has ever had has come from people who were extremists in their time”? I think this confuses the notion of “radical” with “extreme,” and therefore romanticizes the effectiveness of extremism. Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • The New Deal. This was the work of FDR and his brain trusters, a very comfortable bunch of establishment worthies. Their ideas were radical and far reaching, to be sure, but their actions were far from extreme.

  • The labor movement of the 1930s. The Wagner Act was the key legislative victory for the labor movement during the New Deal, but I think there’s little question that the violent strikes and sit-ins of this period were probably essential to its eventual success. This is a case where extremism worked.

  • Civil rights. The two most influential figures in the civil rights movement were Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom were practical politicians. Both of them, and King in particular, were vilified as extremists by white southerners, of course, but they were supported by moderates around the country, and this was key to their success. Later, when much of the civil rights cause came to be symbolized by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers ? genuine extremists ? the movement lost a lot of its support and a lot of its power.

  • Abortion. In this case, the extremists are the protesters who shut down abortion clinics and, to a lesser extent, the “Silent Scream” fundamentalists who try to win support through grotesque imagery. This is still an ongoing cause, of course, but I would argue that it’s already clear that these tactics have backfired. Moderates don’t support this kind of behavior, and it appears to have had little success in changing minds. Rather, it has alienated potential supporters and probably increased moderate support for abortion rights.

  • Vietnam. This is a mixed bag. The street protests of the 60s certainly had an effect ? they were partly responsible for keeping LBJ from running for reelection in 1968 ? but their overall effect on the war is unclear. During the entire time the protests were going on the war was continually escalated, first by Johnson and then by Nixon, and support for the war remained fairly high. In 1972, after seven full years of protests, Richard Nixon defeated an anti-war Democrat in one of the largest landslides in history. The protests did have some effect, but probably a good deal less than it appears on the surface.

There’s another point about liberal activism that I suspect a lot of liberals don’t fully appreciate: it’s very rare. Consider the following pair of facts:

  • Since World War I there have been only two periods of serious legislative progress for liberalism in the United States. The first was the New Deal, every bit of which was enacted during FDR’s first term. The second was the 60s, which extends (approximately) from the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to the Clean Air/Clean Water acts of 1970-72. In the last 80 years, then, there have been only about a dozen years of serious liberal activism.

  • Both of these periods were made possible by huge Democratic majorities in Congress. It would not take quite such a large majority today (Southern Democrats skew the numbers before 1970), but it would still probably take a majority of 55-60% to usher in another period of liberal activism.

My point is that there’s a mixed record here, and hardcore lefties shouldn’t be too confident about the proposition that extremists are the engine that drives liberalism. There’s no question that single-minded activism is critical ? as it is in any movement ? but extremism is not, and success normally doesn’t come until the cause manages to extend its appeal to moderates. Right now we are in a conservative period in American history, and we need to move America out of this, and the Democratic party into a comfortable majority, before we can do any good. The lesson of history, I think, is that only after we’ve done that will there be a period in which liberal activism will have a window of opportunity.

UPDATE: This was a long post, but let me just summarize the whole thing like this: if you truly have a radical agenda in mind, you need to represent it as moderate and reasonable so that you don’t scare everyone off. Radical conservatives have done this quite successfully over the past 20 years, but radical liberals haven’t. Who’s winning?

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