Politics and Governance

America Needs More Extremists: Confronting the Myth of Political Polarization

The argument that America is in the stranglehold of widening, bitter political battles has become so prevalent that it is widely accepted as true.

The problem, however, is that it’s not.

Senate Democrats complained that President Obama’s appointments were being blocked by an “obstructionist” Republican minority- even though only 4 out of 1,560 Obama appointees have actually been denied confirmation by the Senate since the President took office.

Republicans in Congress decry the passage of the Affordable Care Act, claiming that Democrats seek to expand the government’s role in healthcare- when Republicans silently did the same thing with the adoption of Medicare Part D.

A lack of partisan division is harming this country. Republicans have succeeded at expanding the welfare state and running up large deficits despite their campaign promises. Democrats remain champions of foreign adventurism despite their effort to portray themselves as the peace party.[1] The lack of substantive difference on a majority of issues is a plague upon American political culture. The fact that valid, divergent worldviews exist is being whitewashed by cries for some undefined bipartisan compromise that is held up like a religious tenant. However, these bipartisan efforts do not actually synthesize new perspectives. Instead, they reward those who would temporarily forego their own ideological beliefs in the hopes of receiving reciprocity at a later, undetermined date. This quid pro quo of morality is poisonous to rational, open debate. As a result, Americans have become increasingly disappointed with the political party of their choice as they say one thing and do another.

Both political parties are guilty of throwing firebomb labels at opponents— for Democrats, “anarchists” is commonly used; for Republicans, “socialist” is the insult du jour. These labels grab a lot of attention but lack actual substance. Such is life in a world of political opinions 140 characters at a time.

Ted Cruz, the abrasive junior Senator from Texas, is labeled a modern-era extremist by his opponents. His crime? He has argued ad nauseam against a tax increase (the Affordable Care Act). If this is what passes as radical and intolerable, Americans are obviously ignorant of their own history.

America has a long history of actual anarchists and socialists, and extremists of all stripes, who have forever altered our society. Extremists of their own day have spearheaded larger movements within a resistant political culture.

Lysander Spooner was an avowed 19th century anarchist. He wrote extensively about the concept of a social contract and was an outspoken voice for abolition of slavery before any party officially adopted the position. In response to expensive government postal service and what he viewed as unconstitutional interference of private commerce, Spooner founded the American Letter Mail Company. It succeeded in lowering postage rates and substantially threatened government postage service until it prompted government suppression in 1851. For his time, Spooner was a renegade— someone who openly questioned the status quo and did not follow the rules that governed the nation. Spooner was labeled an extremist by opponents, but his efforts broke the government monopoly on mail service and later improved the lives of millions of African-Americans who would officially emerge from slavery in 1865.

Eugene Debs was the most recognizable face of socialism in the United States. During World War One, Debs ran afoul of the existing political order by speaking out against the war and urging resistance to conscription. He was arrested for sedition, was stripped of his citizenship and served ten years in prison. Socialism failed to take root in America, but Debs’ unabashed criticism of an administration and defiance of draft efforts paved the way for popular opposition to future wars and to conscription during the Vietnam War. Debs’ case is also often used to display how unpopular speech should still be protected. During his time, Debs was labelled a “traitor to his country” by President Woodrow Wilson. All of Debs’ punishment was in reaction to his words, not actions. In 1921, the Sedition Act amendments to the Espionage Act of 1917, under which Debs’ had been imprisoned, were repealed. While his defiance of the draft was radical in his time, Debs’ position has come to be accepted by a majority of Americans. Today the draft does not exist and is unlikely to ever be reinstated.

America does not have a problem with polarized politics. Instead, we have a problem with a lack of courage to stand against the current political environment. The extremists that we are told plague our country don’t exist. America could use more extremists from all corners of the political spectrum in order to provoke honest debate about our principles and shape our nation in the 21st century.


[1] Paul, Ron. “Liberty Defined: 50 Essential Issues that Affect Our Freedom”. Grand Central Publishing, 2012.

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