One of the heroes of the Republican Party is Barry Goldwater, U.S. Senator from Arizona and 1964 Republican nominee for president. During his quest for the presidency, at a time when the Republican Party was fighting an internal battle between the rising more conservative Westerns and Southerns versus the East Coast and Pacific Northwest moderates, Goldwater famously proclaimed, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” As a young Republican these words rang true to me and others toiling away on Republican campaigns during the Reagan and Bush eras.
Today, however, I view these famous words as more of a cautionary tale. Certainly, America and Americans value liberty and justice as bedrocks of our 200-plus year experiment in self-governance. But the use of the term “extremism” brings near chills to my spine when I put it in the context of today’s polarized environment.
The gift of 330 million persons living in a representative democracy is that we are all allowed and encouraged to have and use our own voice. But to quote the wise sage of the Spider-Man franchise, with great power comes great responsibility. In today’s always-on, ever present social media and 24-hour politicized news cycle, we have created a dynamic where we as individuals are never wrong – our views are justified in our pursuit of what we view as liberty or justice – and reflected back to us by our own media-driven echo chamber.
Growing Extremism is Making it Harder to Govern
Making us feel as if we are never wrong, and the “other side” as always wrong is certainly good business – it keeps us tuned in to our favorite cable or Internet media source. But the growing number of Americans who are “extremists” on any number of issues is making America harder to govern.
The proliferation of misinformation and the election of candidates catering to the extremes and deploying disinformation into the public square without repercussions are creating a level of dysfunctional government we have not seen in our recent history. This challenge to our political system comes at a time when the world is changing at a clip never before seen and facing existential and complex challenges that can only be addressed with a strong public and private sector working together.
Polarization Undercuts Investing in Key Drivers of American Prosperity
Economically, the U.S. coasted on the investments made by our grandparents’ generation – robust infrastructure (roads, airports, higher education) without making the investments to keep these backbone elements of American society best-in-class. Today, not only do we have to play catch-up on these investments (which certainly is not cheap), we do so when we are increasingly polarized (with our international adversaries effectively contributing to our polarization with subversive campaigns), making competing in the 21st century increasingly challenging.
‘Can’t-Be-Wrongs’ Can’t Compromise
Extremism in pursuit of liberty or justice may not be a vice. But if by being “extreme” in our views – regardless of how noble they are (or we think they are) – we eliminate the possibility of the other side being right we then eliminate the possibility for the compromise necessary for progress. Democracy works only when compromise is in the air – it’s the only way Americans can address the challenges of the future. Being “extreme,” regardless how pure the motives or valiant the cause, stands as a growing barrier to America’s competitiveness in the 21st century.