Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 speech accepting the Republican Party’s nomination to run for president, responded to repeated accusations of “extremism” as follows: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” (Amen!)

Goldwater was trounced in the presidential election by Democrat Lyndon Johnson who had responded to Goldwater as follows: “Extremism in the pursuit of the Presidency is an unpardonable vice. Moderation in the affairs of the nation is the highest virtue.” (Really?)

Ever since the 1964 election, the “extremism” charge has been used extremely effectively by leftists and “moderates” against the Right. It helped thwart Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution.” In Canada, it is routinely deployed against Preston Manning and the Reform Party — which now appears to be retreating into “moderation.” But what does “extremism” mean, and what makes it so potent a weapon?

Many today, if asked for examples of “extremism,” would likely respond: the Ku Klux Klan, the Unabomber, Adolf Hitler, etc. The term “extremism” seems to mean intolerance, racism, hatred, fanaticism and incitement to violence. But it also seems to mean something else.

The term “extremism” has been primarily used to attack certain politicians — Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, Manning — and what they stand for. Such politicians are widely regarded — validly or not — as enemies of statism and defenders of capitalism.

After Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” was squashed, Democrats Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt (in their joint statement on the 104th Congress) claimed that Democrats are “proud to have fought and stopped much of the extremist agenda of the Republican Congress.” The term “extremism” appears frequently throughout the document. What did these “moderate” Democrats find “extremist” about the Republican agenda? It was the plans to cut spending on health care, social security, public education, environmental protection, nutrition programs, and more.

In other words, the Republican agenda was “extremist” because it threatened Big Government.

If Gingrich et al are “extremists” for attacking statism, then what do they have in common with the Ku Klux Klan, the Unabomber, or Hitler?

America was founded by men who opposed the violation of individual rights — men who opposed statism. If “moderation” in politics is the current ideal, then any uncompromising defender of the principles of man’s inalienable rights — the principles of freedom and capitalism — could be labeled an “extremist.”

So when such distinguished men as America’s Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Washington, etc.) could get lumped together with Hitler under the tag “extremism,” a deeper investigation into its elusive meaning and purpose is warranted.

Observe that “extreme,” by itself, denotes merely a large degree of departure from some average or norm. To exhibit extreme strength, courage, honesty, or dishonesty is merely to exhibit far more than usual of that characteristic. “Extreme,” by itself, is not a moral term — it offers no rational basis for making a moral judgment. What is open to moral judgment is the characteristic itself, such as honesty or dishonesty.

To morally denounce something solely because it departs from the average is irrational, and leads to extremely absurd conclusions. Are extremes in health and illness equally bad? Or intelligence and stupidity? Or integrity and untrustworthiness? Is there an optimum middle-ground between extremely virtuous and extremely depraved?

If not, and obviously not, then what explains today’s widespread usage of this indefinable term? Furthermore, why don’t people use it against the “extremely good”? Why Hitler but not Mother Theresa? Why is it used against proponents of smaller governments but not against proponents of bigger governments? Why Goldwater, Gingrich or Manning, but not Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader or Maude Barlow?

The answer: “extremism” functions as a smear term to denounce defenders of capitalism without having to address their arguments or principles. It gets the status quo or “moderate” position accepted by default — without debate. The “moderates” employ “extremism” to package together defenders of capitalism with racists, anarchists and fascist dictators. In people’s minds, capitalism thus becomes associated with evil.

Since “moderation” in politics implies inconsistent, middle-of-the-road and compromising, it promotes a lack of principles and integrity in politics. It is no surprise that the 1996 U.S. election was a race between two inconsistent, unprincipled “moderates” — Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Dole’s campaign slogan was: “Mainstream — not extreme!” Likewise, look at today’s Liberals under Jean Chretien or the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney — unprincipled and moderate.

The “moderates” cherish the status quo. They appear desperate to preserve the present political system — a chaotic battleground of countless pressure groups fighting for more government favors and handouts at the expense of individual rights. The attacks on “extremism” serve to advance statism.

To rescue capitalism from the “moderates,” one must repudiate the term “extremism” and prevent capitalism from being debased by this smear. Barry Goldwater’s funeral could serve symbolically as the day pro-capitalists resolve to bury the “extremism” smear once and for all. They should do so by making a ringing declaration: a “moderate” defense of capitalism is an extreme vice — a consistent and principled defense of capitalism is an extreme virtue.

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Glenn Woiceshyn

Glenn Woiceshyn is a freelance writer, residing in Calgary. Visit his education resources website at Powerful Minds.