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The Danger of Policy Extremism

August 10, 2011 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Extremism is ascendant throughout the Western world. Hostility and abuse of power is rising. While democratic principles and policies govern these countries, individuals and small groups of power holders with shared political views undercut these goals.

Politically, ethnically and racially-tinged violence recently struck Norway. Riots have broken out in Greece and in England as frustrated people look for scapegoats for their countries’ debt problems.

Benign neglect, or indifference to public and human needs, led to the recent battles over the federal debt ceiling and Federal Aviation Administration budget. The same spirit caused Minnesota’s state government shutdown and fuels Wisconsin’s political turmoil.

Pick a state, country or region in deep political turmoil; they’re all linked by rising extremism in the Western world.

Political divisions and extremism is nothing new in Western democracies. Since the days following World War II, hate groups and other extremists in Europe and the U.S. have continually kept coining new names to camouflage their underlying messages.

Typically, overt hate groups are quickly denounced. Law enforcement responds swiftly to their terroristic threats and behaviors. For the most part, they don’t garner much public following.

However, some groups have become more subtle in their messaging and tactics, making them much more difficult to detect and more appealing to some with similar frustrations.

Here in America, we have groups repackaging the extremist views found abroad. Classism has largely replaced racism, but only at the outer veneer. Immigration, religious differences and multiculturalism deepen the mix of scapegoat issues that bond extremist views with populist fears of cultural change.

We see it in Minnesota policy debates. While progressives advocate for shared sacrifice and prosperity, with the rich paying their fair share to help fund the public services from which we all benefit, conservative policy seeks to funnel services to those at the top. This deprives the working and middle-class from the resources necessary to rise out of poverty—strong schools, robust public transit, and access to affordable health care.

Had such exclusions occurred along race, ethnic or gender lines, they wouldn’t be tolerated. However, because policies to cut vital services that would disproportionately impact the poor and middle-class were portrayed in terms such as fiscally responsible and belt-tightening, they were generally accepted, albeit reluctantly by most Minnesotans and Americans.

While hard-heartedness over state and federal budgets left some blogsters busy splitting hairs over proper definitions for anarchists, libertarians, so-called “Tea Party” movements and other ideologues that brought America and Minnesota to the brink of collapse, most let the events pass with little public outrage.

That’s what makes guiding our public policy debate into well defined outcomes so difficult. We all have unique, nuanced perspectives, even extremists.

Some bloggers cite libertarian Andre Marrou as explaining, “An Anarchist is an extreme Libertarian, like a Socialist is an extreme Democrat and a Fascist is an extreme Republican.”

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, however, says there is no “defining position that all anarchists hold,” and other dictionaries offer that libertarians are themselves a diverse group that generally support property rights but with limited, minimal interests in what are considered human rights.

None of this is as helpful as the great political definition offered by John Kenneth Galbraith: “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”

Enter the Tea Party movement now threatening the economies and well being of several states and our nation. It seems to be a mixed bag of historic and new political ideologies while bound together by frustrations brought by social change and a stressed global economy.

People with a regard for history might justifiably find Tea Party ties with the Sacco and Vanzetti, the early 20th century anarchists in Massachusetts, and scoff at the group’s proclaimed linkages to the pre-revolution protest in Boston harbor.

So blame today’s financial fiascos of Washington, St. Paul and Madison on the Sacco and Vanzetti wing of the Tea Party, if one must narrow definitions.

This much is clear. The general public can be harmed by either direct terrorist action from extremists or from what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “benign neglect.”

The latter are actions by less violent extremists who would deny people access to health care, food, housing and other basic needs. It’s a scarier ideology because people don’t recognize its dangers until well after its policy is implemented and poor outcomes are obvious and nearly irreversible.

We have been warned. And we must remain alert to recognize the warnings.

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  • Bruce Kittilson says:

    August 17, 2011 at 10:24 am

    I simply want to thank the author for this excellent article.