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The danger of policy extremism

Extremism is ascendant throughout the Western world. Hostility and abuse of power are 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.

Continually coining new names
Political divisions and extremism are nothing new in Western democracies. Since the days following World War II, hate groups and other extremists in Europe and the United States 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.

Exclusions along class lines
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.

Unique, nuanced perspectives
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.”

Bound together by frustrations
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 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 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.

Direct action or ‘benign neglect’
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.

Lee Egerstrom is an Economic Development Fellow with Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on its website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/15/2011 - 07:18 pm.

    The standard psychological dysfunction that drives people to value getting rich (or staying rich) above all other things,…

    feeds into these realities because it has three major facets 1) the inability of those suffering from it to experience or express compassion or empathy,…

    2) the inability of those suffering from it to feel any kind of lasting satisfaction as the result of their success, their accumulation of wealth, or the things their wealth can buy them,

    3) those suffering from it are unconsciously motivated by their internally-exiled personality facets which act as tricksters making it seem to them as if the only acceptable solutions to their problems are to accumulate ever more wealth,…

    while, at the same time using the power their wealth grants them to demand policies that destroy those without wealth,…

    in other words to create a society which daily rubs their noses in exactly what they most detest, people legitimately in need of and deserving of compassion and empathy.

    If we do not recognize that there is something wrong with these people,…

    if we allow them to continue to increasingly dominate our nation, they will destroy it and us.

    Such people cannot be educated or informed into wiser, more sensitive, more inclusive perspectives. They can only be removed from power as soon as legally possible and marginalized so that the healthier individuals in our society can take charge and begin to undo the damage the MOST psychologically dysfunctional individuals among our wealthier classes (and those who covet their positions and admire those who hold them) have already been allowed to do.

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