This is Civic Way’s commentary on the state of politics in America. How political extremism is putting our future at risk. How extremism must be understood to be defeated. How our two-party system, once thought to protect us from extremism, is irrevocably broken. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
Since the 2020 election, the stain of political extremism has spread
The alchemy of political extremism, as shown by the January 6th Capitol Assault, is complicated
The rise of political extremism is destroying our two-party system and ability to solve problems
Our response to extremism must be thoughtful, disciplined and resolute
We are not enemies, but friends. … Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. – Abraham Lincoln
The Tragedy of Political Extremism
American politics are infected by extremism. Hyper-partisanship, inane conspiracies, ugly campaigns, personal attacks and the kind of paralysis that thrills our enemies. As a country, we seem unable to overcome our differences, find common ground, solve civic problems or sustain a unified fight against existential threats.
Today, many party leaders treat politics like a zero-sum death match. They are driven to win at all costs, even if the way they win risks our future. One party in particular, the Republican Party, seems to have shed long-held governing principles, offering conspiracies instead of ideas, diversions instead of accountability, hypocrisy and deceit instead of good faith. The other party, the Democratic Party, seems too small for the moment, churning out policies du jour, too often detached from the people they purport to serve.
The result? Unnecessary death and suffering. Economic inequity. Rotting infrastructure. Besieged schools. Inefficient health care. With the exception of our military might, waning global competitiveness. Mediocre quality of life rankings (e.g., Social Progress Index). Declining faith in our leaders, public institutions and democracy itself. A shiny storefront with a tired inventory.
The Stubborn Stain of Extremism
Many of us believed (or at least hoped) that our politics would heal after the 2020 election. We yearned for a return to civility and mutual respect, a shared commitment to fixing America’s ills and a renewed focus on improving the lot of ordinary Americans. We envisioned that our best political leaders would step forward and help show us the way to a more prosperous, equitable and enlightened future.
We optimists were wrong. Very wrong.
Since January 6th, our politics have become even more depraved. Relentless lies about the 2020 election. Shameful equivocation and cowardice regarding the Capitol Coup. Orchestrated campaigns against vaccines, other public health measures (like masks) and public health officials. Cynical misrepresentations of good faith efforts to promote diversity and tolerance. The acceptance of extremism.
If we truly want a better country for the next generation of Americans, we can no longer afford to be mere observers watching these toxins contaminate our politics. We must confront—and understand—the forces that would tear us apart, turning friends into enemies, destroying America from within.
The Alchemy of Extremism
Extremism cannot be defeated without first understanding it. And understanding the threat of extremism to our way of life must begin with the January 6th Capitol Coup, the first sacking of our US Capitol in over 200 years. If we understand what happened that day, perhaps we can see extremism for the monster that it is.
Most of us experience a full range of emotions when we watch the videos of January 6th or, for that matter, last April's storming of the Michigan State Capitol. Shock. Anger. Disgust. Shame. Fear. And, yes, curiosity. How could this happen here? What kind of people do this kind of thing? Why are they so angry? What is really driving them? How can anyone excuse—let alone support—such violence?
We are still learning, but what we know so far is that the Capitol Assault participants were not monolithic. Some were arsonists or nihilists, more interested in chaos and destruction than progress. Some were racists and nativists who regard many Americans and would-be Americans as personal threats. Some likely felt a sense of betrayal and futility. Some probably were just lost souls desperate for respect and community, goaded by their leaders and caught up in the maelstrom.
We know much less about those who planned, financed and promoted the Capitol Coup. The cynical schemers, opportunists and donors behind the rally. The greedy media moguls and vain talking heads promoting the conspiracies that animated the rally. The political demagogues and operatives inciting the protests. Those too cowardly to participate in the assault and too spineless to chastise those who did. The anti-vaxxers who quietly took the vaccine and profited from their deceptions.
What about those who weren’t there? Our countless neighbors, co-workers, friends and loved ones who have become strangers in our midst. Who have succumbed to a political virus or addiction we cannot comprehend. Who unconsciously distort reality to fit their biases. Who, in the face of easily-verifiable facts, believe that the FBI or liberals planned the Capitol Coup. Who embrace wild conspiracy theories and sham election audits. Who turn a blind eye to the threat of domestic terrorism. Good-hearted people led astray.
How should we treat such people? With ridicule, scorn or exasperation? Should we challenge their beliefs with facts and logic? Should we aggressively push our own beliefs?
None of the above. An addict cannot be convinced against his or her will. A cult member cannot be saved by even the most compassionate appeals. We can only keep the door open for their return. We must have faith that the political virus will run its course, that extremism will extinguish itself.
In the meantime, we must fight those who unleashed the virus. Who continue to promote extremism. Who manipulate our loved ones. These are the real threats to democracy and us. While small in number, their pervasive influence demands a resolute response from all Democrats, Republicans and Independents who still think for themselves.
The Two-Party System’s Legacy
Before coming to terms with the symptoms and causes of extremism, it is important to recognize what we once thought controlled extremism, but no longer does. America’s two-party system, long regarded by historians and political scientists as a means for absorbing and defusing fringe parties, is failing us.
The two-party system has dominated our politics for a long time. In fact, since before the Civil War, every president has been from one of the two major parties. Independents have made some inroads. Since 1877, 31 US Senators, 111 US Representatives and 22 governors have been unaffiliated and, in the early 20th century, about 600 mayors were members of the Socialist Party.
Still, the periodic efforts to build third parties have failed. In American politics, independents have exerted little influence except as spoilers. Since 1968, only three independent presidential candidates have won at least five percent of the national vote: George Wallace in 1968, John Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. And only Wallace won Electoral College votes. Ralph Nader’s presence on the ballot in 2000 probably cost Al Gore the election, but his influence evaporated thereafter.
For most of our history as a nation, we have relied on our two-party system to govern us. To produce leaders willing and able to look beyond the next election. To navigate crises. To advance pragmatic ideas from the crucible of partisan debate. To protect us from the ravages of extremism.
Americans have largely accepted the two-party system as a fact of life. We have watched as Democrats and Republicans fought like cats and dogs. We have heard each party condemn the other’s platform. We have endured their political ads and shrugged our shoulders at the natural inevitability of it all. Perhaps, deep down, we have tolerated the noise so long as we prospered or, at least, did not suffer. Perhaps we have even accepted the notion that partisan tensions served the public interest.
More often than not, partisan tensions did yield progress. Our people endured hardships (some more than others). Our nation grew, matured and even evolved, emerging as a respected global leader. For the most part, the two-party system worked, partly because both parties believed they had to compromise to survive and partly because both believed they could win the next election without destroying their opponent.
The Two-Party System’s Surrender to Extremism
While the Republican Party has no monopoly on extremism, its recent capitulation has been striking. Afraid to offend the ex-president’s base, GOP leaders make the Mar-a-Lago pilgrimage. GOP candidates jump into primaries touting their idolatry. GOP incumbents showing a glimmer of independence are primaried. Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, with one of the US Senate’s most conservative voting records, faces a primary challenge simply because he failed to challenge Electoral College results after the Capitol Coup.
It is painful to watch a major party that has accomplished so much descend into extremism, especially a strain that is so antithetical to our constitutional principles. Former US Representative David Jolly (R-FL) has lamented the Republican Party’s willingness “to embrace … an undemocratic, anti-republic theme.” All Americans—Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike—should lament it.
The pandemic brought us untold suffering, but it also wrote the obituary for the two-party system. The politicization of pandemic-related public health measures has been a shameful marker of how far our two-party system has fallen. In 2020, Democrats, such as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, said they would not take the vaccine solely based on Trump’s advice. At the same time, Republicans, like Vice President Pence and Senator Rand Paul justly touted the Trump administration’s vaccine development initiative.
Fast forward to 2021 after the partisan world turned. Democratic leaders are justly promoting the vaccines and many Republican leaders are questioning their efficacy. While some GOP leaders like Senate Minority Leader McConnell have quietly supported the vaccines, many right-wing politicians have discredited the vaccines and labeled vaccination programs as scandalous and fascist.
Thanks to this alarming politicization of public health, vaccination rates have diverged along partisan lines. Per a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 93 percent of Democrats have been–or plan to be—vaccinated compared to only 49 percent of Republicans. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 23 percent of Republicans won’t get vaccinated or will only do so if required.
If the two-party system produces this kind of suicidal thinking on a simple public health issue, it no longer protects us from extremism or serves the public interest. It is dead, the victim of extremism.
The Search for Civility
Many of us value independence and compromise. We talk about voting for the person, not the party. We yearn for more bipartisanship and collaboration. We may want such things, but the reality is that extremism and partisan polarization are getting much worse.
Red and blue states are getting brighter and purple states scarcer. Only six states have US Senators of different parties, the smallest number since 1914. For both parties and most offices, extremists are weaponizing the partisan primary system to intimidate incumbents and replace malleable centrists with inflexible zealots. With more ideologues holding office, constructive compromise will be more elusive.
The risks of extremism and political polarization could not be graver. America has lost—or is rapidly losing—the ability to act as “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Our long-hyped national exceptionalism is fading. Our economic competitiveness is eroding. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our vulnerability to global and domestic threats is rising. Our patriotism is fraying.
This does not have to be our future.
In our next essay, we will address some of extremism’s principal symptoms and causes. We will then present strategies for harnessing good government as a transformative force for restoring good politics.