Valuing Extremes
By A.D. Freudenheim  

10 May 2004

The defeat of Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Patrick J. Toomey, in has primary challenge to incumbent Senator Arlen Specter, is not necessarily a benefit to the rest of us here in America. Senator Specter’s allegedly-moderate positions may have played well enough to keep him in office for six terms; what becomes more difficult to evaluate is how much his “moderate” stands actually support those who value moderation – instead of aiding the more conservative Republican party with which he is aligned, which is the more likely result. As if there was any doubt as to whose side Mr. Specter supports, the active campaigning on his behalf by President Bush should settle all questions, yet Mr. Specter is believed to be to the left of Mr. Bush on many key points.

This issue goes beyond votes in the Senate and is, instead, part of a critical dialog about ideologies that is not taking place openly or loudly enough. Put plainly, extremists and ideologues matter, and are crucial to the effective functioning and continued evolution of democracies. These people, regardless of their affiliations, help define our choices and bring clarity to our beliefs; ideologues provide useful foils, making it easier to distinguish one’s stand, when the contrast is with an inflexible and rigid opponent. Moreover, extremists can either make compromise possible – by forcing their own exclusion from the debate – or sustain action when reaching an agreement becomes impossible.

Of course, ideologues can also be dangerous, forcing reactions that push the opposite extremes. In the Middle East, for example, there is no question that the hard-line positions taken by Hamas, Hizbollah, and other religious-terrorist groups enable and sustain Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s own policy of “targeted assassination,” along with the generally brutal siege of civilian populations in the Occupied Territories. Since it is not possible to negotiate with them – since Hamas’ position is entirely opposed to the existence of Israel in the first place – it becomes possible for Sharon to take action, with few repercussions (thus far, anyway) from people within Israel.

This need not be the only course of action. After all, in the 1990s, Hamas was equally adamant in repudiating Israel, but the Israeli government’s position was to seek out the moderates among the Palestinians and attempt to reach a compromise with them. That this failed (and lead to the current Intifada, which in turn helped elect Ariel Sharon) may owe more to the weakness on the part of the Palestinians moderates than the strength of the terrorists. Nonetheless, it shows the role the extremists can play, sometimes a valuable one despite their own intentions.

In theory, extremists also serve as necessary distractions, drawing our attention to issues, problems, or elections we might otherwise overlook, by presenting a series of ideas or options unpalatable enough to force all but the most disaffected to respond. That’s a good theory; if only it were true. In the primary election in Pennsylvania, despite the stark differences between Mr. Toomey and Mr. Specter, the latter won by 2% of the vote – hardly a landslide – in an election that The New York Times described by saying “Turnout was weak.”[1] In other words, the strong distinctions between Mr. Toomey and Mr. Specter as drawn by both men, and the potential implications of a Toomey victory for conservative Republicans, failed to motivate a broad swath of GOP members to turn out at the polls. Likewise, in the recent vote among Israel’s Likud Party members to determine whether to proceed with Mr. Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip – Mr. Sharon lost, but only 30% of registered Likud members bothered to vote, even though this was an issue of critical importance to the party and to the nation.

There is no accounting for voters, or even citizens. As we sit and watch the evolving chaos in Iraq from the relative comfort and stability of these United States, neither their problems nor our own are likely to motivate Americans to vote come November. Of course, here in the U.S. our troubles may lie less with the extremists than with the faux-moderates, the ideologues in sheep’s clothing – such as President Bush himself. The “Compassionate Conservative” has become something else entirely; Mr. Bush is neither liberal enough to appeal to those with compassion, or conservative enough to truly satisfy the hungry base on his right flank; he attempts to present a moderate image that is in contrast to his legislative priorities and Executive assertions, but which leave only the fringe of voters – the extremists within each party – likely to turn out for an election. Sadly, this overall political apathy can only spell disaster of a kind even Mr. Bush may not truly be able to imagine.

[1] “Specter Wins Pennsylvania Senate Primary” by James Dao, The New York Times, 28 April 2004.   Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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