The Rhetoric of Extremes

Several years ago, I read a biography of Lenin for a Russian Great Books Discussion in the IMPACT Learning Community at BGSU. The text was extensive; I learned more about Lenin than I really wanted to at the time. But one thing struck me as very telling from the history and story of Lenin: the effectiveness of the rhetoric of extremes.

This “extreme” is of course in relation to other political positions, not some fixed position.And that’s exactly how Lenin treated the issue of political strategy: whatever the other party was advocating or espousing, he would take it up a notch. That in itself doesn’t seem especially important. But the effect it had on the political environment of early 20th century Russia was incredible. Lenin led the Bolsheviks to dominance in Russia and helped with the formation of the Soviet Union. Many other moderate political parties were pushed aside because they couldn’t provide the promises and extreme changes that the Bolsheviks espoused.

(This type of rhetoric doesn’t belong to one side of the political spectrum either. Perhaps the picture of Lenin at the top of this post gives the wrong impression about which end of the political spectrum this extreme rhetoric belongs. Conservative and liberal viewpoints alike can be shifted to the extremes.)

Obama’s rhetoric during the presidential election campaign was a rhetoric of extremes. Now, his policies themselves weren’t extreme, but the rhetoric was. We need real change. None of this moderate stuff. Real change NOW. There’s nothing particularly centrist about Obama’s campaign. Of course, there’s the usual argument that Obama is looking out for all Americans. My point is not how or who his policies affect/benefit/hurt. My focus is on the rhetoric itself. Obama is certainly not unique in his use of extreme rhetoric, but his mastery of political rhetoric makes the effect particularly noteworthy.

(A side note: to those who think Obama is an avowed socialist with designs for total government control, please knock it off. Open your eyes to beyond the microcosm of American politics and take a gander and the real variance in political ideologies in the rest of the world. Just about any European country makes American-style liberals look completely watered-down. And similarly, American-style conservatives look positively hippy-esque compared to political parties in China or Africa. Policy-wise, American politicians don’t nearly deserve the draconian credit they’re given. So the next time you’re comparing Obama or Bush to someone as extreme as Hitler, let’s back off a bit, shall we?)

So, back to the premise of this post: the rhetoric of the extremes.

What is it that makes extreme themes so popular with people? And by people, I mean just that: people. The effect of revolutionary rhetoric doesn’t seem to be terribly constrained to any particular group or political affiliation. Where does the pull come from for this kind of rhetoric? Why don’t people take a step back from calls for revolution or extreme changes and ask themselves “wait, what am I signing up for?”

This is not to say that moderates alone should be relied upon as a political majority at all times. They are useful for establishing broad-based consensuses in a particular country, but don’t exactly lend themselves to progress. But I’m certainly not attacking centrist politics, which play an important role in maintaining the coherence of any particular polis.

But why do extreme politics have this striking ability to polarize the political spectrum? “If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.” Really? Must we adopt extreme rhetoric to have meaningful political discourse? I don’t think so, but it’s hard to make that argument when the powerful effects of extreme rhetoric tend to transmogrify the realistic policy separations between political parties into chasms of ideological difference.

I guess my confusion won’t be going away anytime soon . . .

Until next time, bonnes pensées.

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