…extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue! (Barry Goldwater, 1964)
Barry Goldwater was considered at the extreme edge of the Republican Party in 1964. His now famous quote was aimed at allaying the fears of voters that, as president, he might do extreme things. Much like future political wordsmiths would do more successfully, he was trying to turn a word, in this case extremism, on its head. He failed. In years following his massive defeat Goldwater was said to have mellowed. He emerged as a respected elder statesman capable of surprising those who saw him as one-dimensional. According to his granddaughter C.C. Goldwater, he was pro-choice and a supporter of Gay Rights. She says specifically that her grandfather …would not have been comfortable with the increasing influence of the Christian right over the GOP. I’m with him on that.
Many of today’s far right Republicans credit Goldwater with being the heroic trailblazer without whom a series of conservative leaders, most notably their icon Ronald Reagan, could never have come to office. They suggest that what was considered extreme five decades ago is now, thanks to Goldwater’s political heirs, mainstream. Without accepting that characterization of mainstream, there is little doubt our politics and with it the country has moved to the right. The Republican presidential primary of 2012, without a single (claimed or true) moderate voice in contention, puts that into sharp, sometimes shocking, relief. Some people think the party has lost its mind.
Not so says NY Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat who denies the Republican Party has gone mad. He suggests that the disastrous Bush years have left the party without a bench; that it finds itself in a kind of between generations limbo. Poor unmentionable non-person (in this campaign) George W. Bush, has to carry the reputational blame for all that is wrong with the country and, of course, for the increasingly dim prospects for his party in 2012. I rarely agree with Douthat but read him regularly and respect him as a fresh and thoughtful writer. In this case, what he contends is sadly nothing more than old-fashioned spin and rationalization. Perhaps the GOP isn’t crazy — I’ll give him that — but what they’re into this year and its extremism is absolutely mystifying.
A recent Rasmussen poll confirms that the vast majority (82%) of American voters consider the economy their number one concern. No other concern comes close and others confirm these findings. Nonetheless, based upon their campaigning (and what is truly mystifying), Republican candidates apparently don’t seem to see the economy as paramount. Instead, they have returned the so-called culture wars and issues that don’t even register in the Rasmussen polling. In fact these people give the economy astoundingly short shrift offering what amounts to more of the same old, same old. Of course Mitt Romney boasts his special businessman credential — the guy who has created jobs. His basic message: trust me, I know this stuff and can fix it. But drill down and all he or any of his colleagues have to offer is the predictable robotic solutions: drastically cut government spending, lower taxes and let the free market do its work. What’s mystifying is that the primary focus of the campaign being played out before our eyes, especially since Rick Santorum’s rise, seems to be about God and, of all things, contraception, not abortion. None of this seems to be on the voters’ radar, except of course for those who count themselves among the religious right. Primaries are aimed at the base, at the core of party support and ideology. It is abundantly clear that the GOP’s base has become more extreme than at any time in my memory, or perhaps than ever before.
For more than a decade we Americans have been obsessed with religious extremism and where it can lead. That focus has primarily been on Muslim fundamentalism justified by the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. It’s all about them, the alien other. We should be equally concerned about our own religious extremists, I’d suggest much more concerned. Rick Santorum, who a new NY Times/CBS poll suggests would draw as many votes against Obama as Romney, is one of them. Santorum’s pronouncement on the contraception debate and his disavowal of church state separation, including totally distorting John F. Kennedy’s historic Houston speech, serve as markers for his extremism. But perhaps even more so do his attacks on public and university education. Santorum, as has been widely reported, said the idea that…government should be running schools…is anachronistic. He called President Obama a snob for encouraging all American young people to attend college, which he characterized as indoctrination mills. Then talking like a victim of minority persecution, he asserted, I went through it at Penn State. You talk to most kids who go to college who are conservatives, and you are singled out, you are ridiculed. I can tell you personally, I went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views. Of course he backs up none of these almost paranoiac assertions which some college friends have disputed.
To prove his point about the evils of college, the former Senator contends that as many as 62% of students who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave college without it. Why? Well college campuses are not a neutral setting[s}, but rather places …with political correctness, with an ideology that is forced upon people who, you know, who may not agree with the politically correct left doctrine. Not surprisingly, Santorum and his wife have made a number of lifestyle decisions, including…home schooling their younger children sending their older boys to a private academy affiliated with Opus Dei, an influential Catholic movement that emphasizes spiritual holiness. Of course, homeschooling (employed by many on the religious right) like Madrasahs, Yeshivas and parochial schools don’t have any such lack of neutrality.
Extremist fundamentalism of the kind Santorum represents is by no means restricted to one religion. Today it’s common for us to associate extremism with Muslims. In fact, many of the Jews occupying the West Bank are both fundamentalists and extremists, who by the way find American Christian fundamentalists among their strongest supporters. Fundamentalism, regardless of faith, is built around two essential beliefs. The first, that there is a God is shared by the religious of all stripes. However individually defined, that god belief is grounding and has motivated millions of human beings to both live exemplary lives and to do good in the world. The second, and the one that is so troubling and potentially dangerous, is that their specific extremist beliefs are definitive — that they alone are in possession of the one and only truth. So they feel empowered to both speak for and to act in God’s name, which includes against those who believe differently. Mr. Santorum, for example, sees any sex not connected with procreation as sinful, and thus would do all in his power to prevent it (facilitated by contraception) from happening.
The rabid characterizations made by Rush Limbaugh and the disgracefully tepid response to them by GOP candidates and leadership has opened a political Pandora’s box. Republicans, it is concluded, are simply anti-women. To let that happen at a time when more than 50% of the electorate is female mystifies to say the least. Rick Santorum who himself made some horrendously inflammatory assertions about both homosexuality and marriage equality, most assuredly is not troubled by the Limbaugh message. Quite the contrary his positions are exactly the same. To me, these views are totally consistent with religious extremism, regardless of ideology, which is essentially sexist. Women are seen in a subservient role with but one primary purpose: to carry (and then care for) children. Having lot’s of children not only helps preserve the faith, not inconsequentially, it also keeps women busy and out of trouble. Religious extremists like it that way and remarkably many of their women have been convinced that walking (far) behind their man, not getting in the way, or God-forbid competing, is a good thing, the right thing.
Barry Goldwater was soundly defeated in 1964. I voted for Johnson and, like Republican primary voters today, deeply regretted the limited choice at hand. Johnson escalated Viet Nam even further after that election and, while the shocking Daisy commercial suggested Goldwater would be a killer of the innocent, it was Johnson who ended his own life with plenty of real blood on his hands. That said, Goldwater was all wrong about extremism. It is never a virtue. Extremism is the product of people who arrogantly think they possess the truth and that the ends justify the means. They never do. We execute the wrongly accused, doing great and unjust harm because a jury has been mistakenly convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. As bad as that may be, that court of law language suggests something the opposite of extremism, namely that there always can (and should be) doubt. What makes this year’s GOP bunch, and most especially Rick Santorum, so frightening is not that they diss women or think the government should shrink to as little as possible, but that they are so damn sure of their truth and consequently everyone else’s falsehood. That’s a threat to any democracy, a real, present and extreme danger to all of us.