2012: The year when extremism self-destructs?

Chip Somodevilla GETTY IMAGES Doerle Rowley (C) of Bettendorf, Iowa, and hundreds of fellow supporters wait for the arrival of … Continued

Chip Somodevilla

GETTY IMAGES

Doerle Rowley (C) of Bettendorf, Iowa, and hundreds of fellow supporters wait for the arrival of former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for a rally at the Hotel Blackhawk December 27, 2011 in Davenport, Iowa.

Extremism in religion and politics contains the seeds of its own destruction. The self-destruction of political extremism is already upon us. The Tea Party faithful force GOP candidates into ever more ridiculously extreme, and often self-contradictory positions that make it impossible for that candidate to win a general election. Nevertheless, the “base” continues to demand more extremism, and candidates fall in line, becoming both more hypocritical and unelectable.

The instability of religious extremism may be an even better illustration. The premise of the “Rapture,” for example, the idea that the end of history is upon us and the very few true Christian believers are about to be taken directly up into heaven, was much in the news in 2011.


View Photo Gallery: From Rick Perry’s prayer revival to Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, religion has played an inspirational and controversial role on the campaign trail.

Such end times predictions show the pitfalls of extremist thinking. When the promised vision does not arrive, as happened with Harold Camping’s prediction of the end times in 2011, disillusionment and ridicule follow. Meanwhile, the real problems that threaten us remain unaddressed as the Camping debacle illustrates. Camping’s antics made Christian thinking about the end times, what is called eschatology, seem absurd. Yet, the question of ‘where are we going in history?’ is not irrelevant. But his extremism took both serious religious and political questions off the table.

Here are some other reasons why extremism is prone to self-destruction:

Ideological purity destroys consensus

The lure of “end-times” thinking is that it is a vision of purity. The promise of end times thinking is that when that perfect future arrives, there will be no more contradictions or questions. But ideological purity can never be achieved in the present, so political (and religious) consensus cannot be achieved. Beyond a vague political agenda of ‘get government off our backs’ and a ‘values’ ethic of homophobia and anti-abortion, there is no positive platform on the far right for dealing with the economy or with the broad differences Americans have on personal and social ethics.

The ‘get government off our backs’ agenda itself contains the kinds of internal contradictions that will lead to the destruction of extremism. For example, 40 percent of Medicare recipients swear they have never used government programs. Yet, at some level, the continuation of Medicare is a given, even for the right-wing “base.” Extremist political proposals to radically change Medicare, therefore, continuously blow up in the faces of conservatives, often in contradictory ways. When Newt Gingrich surged in the polls this fall, the Romney campaign decided to run to the right of Gingrich by embracing the “Ryan” plan. This plan had earlier been accurately characterized by Newt Gingrich as “right-wing social engineering.” The extremist base was outraged by Gingrich’s description; Gingrich disavowed that statement, apologized, and his campaign tanked for the first time. Then Gingrich ran further to the right, and Romney further still. The result? Americans have no idea what these candidates might or might not do with Medicare and their poll numbers are either falling or static.

The evangelical base is also no longer united on the so-called values issues. The anti-abortion, anti-contraception “personhood” ballot initiative failed in Mississippi in 2011. Suddenly the consequences of such an extreme position became clearer—the reproductive freedoms Americans from left to right enjoy, especially contraception and in vitro fertilization, seemed at risk. And, of course, increasing numbers of Americans accept that gay Americans and their right to equal treatment under the law, so homophobia is not the automatic winner that it was in the past for the right-wing.

Economic inequality trumps ideology

A rapidly accelerating income inequality is challenging right-wing extremism. As Thomas Edsall said so well in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “Conservatism’s strength, its stress on the value of individual responsibility, is also its central weakness.” This is the internal contradiction that results from taking too extreme a position on government help for those who are being crushed by an economics of inequality and an out-of-control banking system. Rants to “make yourself more employable” fall on deaf ears to the 55 year-old who is suddenly out of work through no fault of his own. The anxiety and anger of this growing segment of the population is unaddressed by the old ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ rhetoric. And people know darn well that ‘corporations are people too’ is an absurdity.

In 2011, a giant crack appeared in the ‘reduce taxes on the wealthy to improve the economy’ narrative that had so dominated the terrible first decade of the new millennium. The dramatic success in #OccupyWallStreet in changing the national narrative from reducing taxes on the wealthy, and obsessing about debt, to the accelerating inequality in the United States is the central reason why right-wing extremism will tank in 2012.

Income inequality hits home in the majority of American households now. The Congressional Budget Office study released in October of 2011 showed that the wealth of the top 1 percent has nearly tripled since 1979. CBO found that, between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top 1% of households, a quarter of that for the next 19 percent, and then was nearly flat, adjusted for inflation, for the majority of Americans. The accompanying chart has been shown on numerous news programs and, of course, was reproduced on many #OWS signs.

Half of all Americans now live at or below the poverty level. There is no politically extremist rhetoric that can hide from an individual or family that they are not making it in today’s America.

This has become not just a political issue, but a profound issue of religious morality and a site of religious struggle. My On Faith post, “It’s not class warfare, it’s not Christianity” provoked a huge debate because the crisis in American economics and morality is now threatening to become obvious to all. I believe that is why that particular post received such a hugely negative, and hugely positive response at the same time.

Overreaching always ends badly

Political or religious extremism is overreaching. The fundamental fault line that runs through extremism is rooted in the sin of pride, of hubris, of overreaching and arrogant presumption. This world is far from perfect, and the art of religion, or politics, is to recognize that we must live with all the complexities and contradictions of this fallenness. I often tell students in the senior theology class to be careful when they create a theological system where everything fits. When everything fits neatly into a theological or political system, you’ve broken or distorted something to make it fit. The world is not simple or neat no matter how much we wish it so.

Thus, my problem with predicting the self-destruction of extremism is that history is not all that certain or simple. Also, when an extremist ideology self-destructs it is not pretty or neat. A lot of collateral damage will result if this implosion actually occurs.

But I will stand by my thesis. I believe the promise of a new millennium starts now, after the completion of its first decade. Out of the debacle that extremism has created in the first ten years, the next ten years will see a move back from that abyss and the strengthening of the movement, already begun, that emphasizes greater income equality, human rights, and respect for religious diversity.

I hope I’m not wrong. Happy New Year.

About

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • bobaluchowdury

    The only reason the republicans cannot rally behind their only viable candidate is that he is not a “proper” christian. It is these proper christians who have propped up a line of embarrassingly inadequate candidates to rest their failed hopes on.

  • BenjiDia

    Extremism is EVERY person in this country being almost $50,000 in debt to the federal government! Our kids deserve better. The system will either be reformed or collapse, only time will tell.

  • kycol2

    If there’s a god in heaven it will be the end of extremism and fanaticism . Oh well, we can always hope that people will become rational. Say what?.

  • jhtlag1

    This is hysterical. One might thing Ms Thisthewaithe would address extremist on both the left and right, but apparently that’s a bit of a come-on and she rails only on tea-partys and the rapture, I guess trying to make a rhetorical connection between them. (I really doubl there are many people who believe in the rapture, at least I’ve never met one)

    At the worst, the tea party is just one more advocate on the cost side of the cost benefit argument, whether buying a new car, house or government policy there always in one, I’m not sure why Ms T. would villify them for that, (and yes, she may disagree, that’s fine) More often, it’s the left that employs most of the emotional arguments, the “Don’t throw granny out into the street” (because their family doesn’t want to deal with her) or the ever popular “homophobia” the effort to grant expensive privileges to a narrow group of people.

    She has no thesis here, more of a laundry lists of things she doesn’t like.

  • jhtlag1

    and there would be no basis for any moral decisions. I can “rationally” rob my neighbor because it would improve my estate. Be careful what you wish for.

  • kycol2

    Thtlag1: Thank you. I understand now: religious extremism and fanaticism is the basis by which moral decisions are made today. That explains everything.

  • dagrubb824

    WP site maintainence folks — the link above saying “Half of all Americans now live at or below the poverty level” goes to a blank page. Can that please be fixed? It would be a very interesting set of data to read.

  • Capn0ok1

    Practice extreme moderation.

  • WmarkW

    WP.com did that under the Muslim comedian story, and totally disrupted the flow of discussion.

  • Capn0ok1

    Moderation the noun, not moderation the verb.

  • paultaylor1

    Well, let’s just put it this way: extremism, in a self-governing social construct, will rise from a disturbed social milieu, run a course, burn its energy, alter public opinion and policy, and settle back down to glowing ember inertia.

    Aren’t we lucky our government and authorities are flexible enough to allow us the space to burn ourselves out? If they oppose us, as in Egypt and Syria, at present, they only fuel our fires.

  • thebump

    Miss Brooks is a tireless champion of the worldwide abortion industry, whose only reason for being is to annihilate the next generation of human beings — especially poor females of color. That’s pretty extremist (and extremely evil).

    She also takes the most extreme reactionary position possible when it comes to modernizing welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare. No! No! No!, she shrieks, nothing must change!

    Exactly who is the extremist?

  • janeDC3

    “The promise of a new millennium starts now”? I so disagree. How? By electing a republican president and republican congress with a very conservative Supreme Court? You’ve got to be kidding me. I believe the exact opposite will happen …. there will be more income inequality, less human rights, and less respect for religious diversity. And forget the planet. The biggest challenge facing human beings in the next 50-100 years is climate change. Climate change will be the great equalizer …. we can forget preventing it. We are going to have to learn how to live with it. Extremism has only just begun, especially if this country brings back the republicans to complete power.

  • janeDC3

    jhtlagi where is the extremism of the left? I don’t see any. Point it out to me please.

  • thebump

    “I don’t see any.” LOL!

  • janeDC3

    Where is it? Rather than LOL, point it out.

  • thebump

    Get a mirror.

  • janeDC3

    I see. You have no argument, no facts, so you only belittle …. how sad.

  • thebump

    Practice what you preach. You offer no facts yourself, merely hyperbole and prejudice.

  • janeDC3

    Not so Bump. Let me point out the extremism going on right now in the republican primary. Perry, Santorum, Bachmann, Paul do not believe in climate change. All of the republican candidates except for Ron Paul believe that people are poor because they choose to be poor. Santorum and Gingrich would like to get rid of our judicial system. Almost all of the candidates believe that people without health care insurance don’t deserve to be treated when they get sick, indeed the audience clapped about this at one of the republican debates.

    That’s extreme.

    Now, point out that kind of extremism on the left please.

  • jhtlag1

    I laugh at your belief in rationalism. Everyone be rational, duh OK. It’s the usual “OK, everybody should be nice” argument. Heck, since we all belive in Darwinism right now (and I do) one can very easily create a “rational” ethos of eat or be eaten.

    Morality usually requires some sort of community agreement which usually needs some sort of reward punishment thing to enforce it, that usualy transpires into some sort of religious strictures. Hey, I never said that religions get out whack, it’s a continuous problem that those codes get usurped by angry people or narrow minded or whatever, but to suggest we should all be rational is naive.

    btw, cut the snark, you really didn’t deserve a reply.

  • janeDC3

    jhtlagi completely missed the point ….

  • janeDC3

    The last I looked, my debt was to the private markets ..

  • johnnydeadline1

    One day, I sincerely hope, we will look back on this era of ultra extreme, radical politics from the right and shake our heads in horrified wonder and relief because level-headedness and true American values will have finally carried the day. Not holding my breath, though.

  • johnnydeadline1

    Yeah, I guess you answered her question. As long as there are people like you out there, extremism won’t end. I’d be careful about who you call evil. For a conservative party that gives full-throated support to the death penalty –whether or not the person is actually guilty — for a party that advocates denying an abortion for a woman who has been raped and whose life is in danger, for a party filled with hatred of “other” — particularly muslims, evil is very much in the eye of the beholder.

  • thebump

    Level-headedness and true American values finally will have carried the day when the most extreme and ideological President ever, the Alinsky-Ayers-Wright protege Prof. Oboobma, is sent packing.

  • janeDC3

    Got it …

  • johnnydeadline1

    Nice job. You just confirmed that the answer to Brooks’ question is almost certainly no. People like you spout nonsense like “the most extreme and ideological president ever” with absolutely ZERO evidence. In fact, the facts speak to quite the opposite. Ayers? Wright? Really? In what way have they affected anything? Incredible.

  • janeDC3

    Really? How so? Can you give some facts here?

  • thebump

    Thanks for illustrating my point about empty hyperbole and prejudice.

  • janeDC3

    Johnnydeadlinei, he can’t give you any facts. He’s just going from one post to another spewing a bunch of partisan crap. He can’t come up with one fact to support his claim. I don’t care if people on these treads are left or right, but most have no facts, just a bunch of spew. it’s creepy at best.

  • janeDC3

    No problem. Glad I can help out.

  • thebump

    People who live in fact-free glass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.

    Seriously—you go first, Jane.

  • janeDC3

    Ah Bump, you are dyslexic. Just keep stowing those thrones. You’ll be alright.

  • Catken1

    When you call it “extremist” to declare a pregnant woman a full human being, with the same right to control her body parts and determine who may or may not use them at any given time as every other human being has, and refer to allowing women to choose when and how they bear children as an attempt to “annihilate the next generation”, then, yes, I’d say you’re the extremist.

  • jhtlag1

    Again, what would that point be that i missed? OK, you’re upset, I get it.

  • janeDC3

    I’m not upset, just amused.

  • kycol2

    jhtlag1; It seems you have some sort of warped idea about morality which makes it some sort of a thing that is very shallow. Some sort of reward/punishment trade-off—love your neighbor or go to hell. Actual moral behavior is based on an imperative to act in a rational way. It is an “ought” that is either there or not there regardless of any reward or punishment other than the moral act itself. Your view of human nature puts civilization back sometime around the time of the cave man. I would hate to think that your view is or ever would become the dominant view of human nature.
    BTW. Religious zeal, fanaticism and extremism are not rational. You are correct in some sort of a way by your example of non-rational thinking.

  • DaveHarris

    Simple-minded notions, especially extremist ones, appeal to simple-minded people. And we are a simple-minded people. Whatever ridiculous notion pops into our heads must be true, just because we want to believe it. The less we know, the easier it is to ignore any contradicting evidence. Skepticism is a foreign concept, and possibly heretical. People who actually know things, like scientists, historians, economist, are the hated enemy.
    This used to be the lunatic fringe, now it’s the center of the Republican Party. The end of extremism? They’re just getting started.

  • jhtlag1

    Explain “what a rational way” is. Evolutionary biologists will explain that everything we do is to get our genetic code to the next generation. So anything that does that would be rational behavoir, correct? I’m guessing rational behavoir can be many things to many people. which often contradict each other.

  • kycol2

    I don’t know what any of that has to do with the nature of morality. It sound to me as if you think the only moral purpose in life is a healthy sexual life. I know I am being flip but this discussion is becoming boring.

    Merriam-Webster definition of rational: The quality or state of being agreeable to reason :

    Merriam-Webster definition of reason:: the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking especially in orderly rational ways : intelligence (2) : proper exercise of the mind (3) : sanity b : the sum of the intellectual powers

    My final comment on this discussion: Here boy. Be a good boy and fetch this stick and I will give you a treat.

  • Rongoklunk

    Rongoklunk;

    We need to stop teaching our children that there’s a god, when in reality we know no such thing. That’s why religious folk need ‘faith’ to believe what they believe – because it’s too preposterous to have expectations.
    Telling a child there’s a god is lying to the child; and telling him there’s an afterlife is also lying. Ditto Heaven and Hell. As far as we know there are no such places.. If we want to know the big answers to the big questions, we won’t find them in the bible, but in science.

    God and Allah are just as mythical as Jupiter and Aphrodite. But folks just love cuddling up with the fantasy of the great sky-god ’cause it feels so good.

    I raised five nonbelievers by “not” mentioning a god, or a heaven.
    And as adults they don’t miss him at all. Better to teach children how to think – than what to think.

  • spamsux1

    Good lord what a pissy little rant.
    Miz Thistlethwaite, who is a senior fellow at the far-left Center for American Progress, is simply using “religion” as a facade to launch a diatribe against conservatives.

    News-flash for the author: religious extremists did not bring about the “shellacking” in the mid-terms. Fiscal conservatives did. You know, a majority of American voters?

    It is disturbing that far-left zealots like her are teaching our young. Her ranting here and in other venues shows that she is the extremist, viciously slashing at all who do not fit her sad, angry, socialist world view.

    To quote Miz Thistlethwaite: “The world is not simple or neat no matter how much we wish it so.”

    Indeed.

  • thebump

    Rongo, you seem to celebrate ignorance. Keep ‘em in the dark. That’s as much a lie as anything. If you really were as enlightened as you want us to suppose, you’d help your child learn as much as possible, not as little.

  • jhtlag1

    If you are bored, it’s because you bore yourself. Answering a question with a M-W definition, your condescension is easy to shrug off. Develop a moral code based on rationalism? Did you not get that as the question? And then, in a final pique, we get that you’re going to take your ball and go home. Run to your mother feeble-minded child.

    (We are down to insults are we, thought I’d try one too weeee! that was fun!”

  • spamsux1

    Sorry, forgot to add this to my own rant ; )

    “Half of all Americans now live at or below the poverty level. There is no politically extremist rhetoric that can hide from an individual or family that they are not making it in today’s America.”

    The “poverty” definition does NOT include any forms of government or private subsidies. For example:
    $200 per month per person for foodstamps. Family of 4 = $9,600.
    Section 8 housing assistance up to $2,200 per month = $26,400.
    Right there is $36,000 and that doesn’t include medicaid or medicare or any other programs.

    Makes the term “poverty” very subjective.

  • ccnl1

    From the Land of Loading More Comments:

    What we do know: (from the fields of astrophysics, nuclear physics, geology and the history of religion)

    1. The Sun will burn out in 3-5 billion years so we have a time frame.

    2. Asteroids continue to circle us in the nearby asteroid belt.

    3. One wayward rock and it is all over in a blast of permanent winter.

    4. There are enough nuclear weapons to do the same job.

    5. Most contemporary NT exegetes do not believe in the Second Coming so apparently there is no concern about JC coming back on an asteroid or cloud of raptors/rapture.

    6. All stars will eventually extinguish as there is a limit to the amount of hydrogen in the universe. When this happens (100 trillion years?), the universe will go dark. If it does not collapse and recycle, the universe will end.

    7. Super, dormant volcanoes off the coast of Africa and under Yellowstone Park could explode catalytically at any time ending life on Earth.

    Bottom line: our apocalypse will start between now and 3-5 billion CE. The universe apocalypse, 100 trillion years?
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

  • Catken1

    So, thebump, why aren’t you teaching your children to believe in all those other religions and gods? Are you celebrating ignorance by helping your child learn only one religious dogma and set of practices?

    Is it enlightened to teach belief without question? Or is it better to teach the child to question and think for themselves?

    And can your religion gain no followers except through early indoctrination? If you really have the truth, then those raised without indoctrination in your religion should find it, rationally and logically, as adults. The fact that kids tend as adults to stay with the religion, or lack of religion, with which they are raised argues that no religion has real, objective truth.

  • thebump

    “Are you celebrating ignorance by helping your child learn only one religious dogma and set of practices?”

    There are two different answers. First, general knowledge and understanding of the major religions would be expected of any educated person. As far as teaching the practice of a particular faith, the reality is that it takes a lifetime to master one, and relatively few people have the time, inclination and intellectual bandwidth to seriously study more than one. Moreover, as a product of Western Judeo-Christian culture, and I would find it pretty unproductive to invest much time pursuing Eastern religions.

    “Or is it better to teach the child to question and think for themselves?”

    Of course. That’s exactly what Rongo proudly says he did NOT do.

    “If you really have the truth, then those raised without indoctrination in your religion should find it, rationally and logically, as adults.”

    Of course. Many of the greatest Christian saints were converts. For that matter, every single believer of any faith is either a convert or a descendant of one. There were zero Christians in this hemisphere not long ago, and now after 18 or 20 generations there are nearly a billion.

    “The fact that kids tend as adults to stay with the religion, or lack of religion, with which they are raised argues that no religion has real, objective truth.”

    First, in many cases there may not be any significance one way or the other. It could be they’re lazy, or it could be that life circumstances simply do not afford them the luxury of deeper inquiry. But at some level for most people, if the faith they’re following did not contain real and powerful truth, they wouldn’t stay with it. You could say it’s not “objective” truth in the sense that it is conditioned by culture, personality, language, imagination, and relationship. But it emanates from the ultimate source of truth and reality.

    What you may be getting at is an idea that religions are mutually exclusive. But that’s ultimately unknowable.

  • thebump

    An analogy: Of the thousands of spoken languages — each perfectly useful to somebody — most educated people are doing quite well to master two or three.

    I’d love to be able to converse in every language on earth. That isn’t going to happen, and therefore I can’t say which among the 99.9% that I don’t know are “true”.

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