From the Princess Bride:
Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up
Vizzini: He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Of course, Montoya is correct. Vizzini isn’t actually using the word inconceivable correctly. Inconceivable means “not capable of being imagined” but Vizzini uses the word to mean, “I didn’t plan on that happening when I set up this little political kidnapping.”
Right now, the word “extremist” is much bandied about in Washington these days but clearly it doesn’t mean what people seem to think it means. People claim that this or that group of “extremists” in Congress have hijacked the federal government, and hyperventilate about it endlessly.
By defining as “extremist” people who are in fact not at all “extreme” people end up in a delusional world of political plans that fail as “inconceivably” as Vizzini’s did, and if they don’t start thinking clearly, their political fortunes could end up sharing Vizzini’s fate.
The word “extreme” means, “furthest from the center or a given point” and that concept is extended metaphorically to people to give us “extremist”, meaning someone who holds political views far from the center of the political spectrum. So what constitutes “far from center” in the context of America’s political system?
By convention, political scientists have divided the political spectrum into five 20% chunks of the population called quintiles. The 3rd quintile in the middle represents the 20% of the population who are centrist/moderates. The 2nd quintile on the left is the 20% of the population who comprise the “Left” and the 4th quintile on the right is the 20% who comprise the “Right”. The 1st quintile on the left is defined as the 20% of the population who are “far-Left” and the 5th quintile on the right is is defined as the 20% of the population who are “far-Right”.
At first it might seem that both the “far-Left” and the “far-Right” could be accurately labeled as “extremist” because 80% of the population is to the right of the “far-Left” while 80% of the population of is to the left of the “far-Right”. However, such a definition would mean that at any given time 40% of the population would be classified as “extremist” one way or the other. Looked at another way, if you had three randomly selected Americans in a room, one of them would be an “extremist”.
Even classifying the 10% most left and right as extremist would still classify 20% or 1 in every 5 Americans as an extremist. Using the 5% most left and tight would mean that 1 in every 10 people would be an “extremist”.
In most usages, leftists define the rightmost 20% of the population as extremist while those on the Right define the leftmost 20% as extremist. Both conveniently ignore their own “extremist” quintile on their side of the Left/Right divide.
When people define some political stance which has nearly 50% support as “extremist” they aren’t using “extremist” to mean what it should mean. What they really mean is something along the lines of, “I extremely dislike that idea”.
When the Democrats began enacting their agenda in 2008 many on the Right cried that they were “extremist” even though the Democrats had won majorities in both the legislative and executive branches. One might argue that the scale of their programs was “extreme” in historical context, but the basic ideas that drove those policies were not “extremist” because at least 1 in every 3 Americans strongly supported them at the time.
Now it is common for Democrats to label the Tea Party as “extremist” even though the Tea Party goals are supported by 4 out of every 10 Americans. There is simply no objective way that the Tea Party can be labeled “extremist”.
What politicos are really trying to say when they label someone as “extremist” is that they represent the points of view of a tiny minority and therefore don’t have any moral authority to strongly influence policy that affects everyone. However, that rhetorical trick undermines itself, because in the American system of government a small minority cannot impose policy on everyone else. If a group or view truly is “extremist” then they are automatically a small minority of no political import. Conversely, if they are politically powerful, they are not on the extremes.
Words mean things. When people use the wrong word to describe some phenomenon, that means that they are thinking about the phenomenon wrong. Using “extremist” incorrectly leads to political defeat because it induces people to ignore facts. If you incorrectly think some political stance is “extremist”, you will translate that in your mind to “has little widespread political support”, which in turn will lead you to massively underestimate the political power behind the idea. You will consistently be defeated by the “extremists” simply because you refuse to label the idea correctly.
In the end, the real problem we face in American politics is not one of various extremists but what we might call “dual centers”. We have large minorities clustering up around right and left centers. Roughly, 40% of Americans will line up on either the left or right of every issue, while the remaining 20% vacillate in between depending on circumstances. If we did have “extremists” we could ignore them but we have competing blocks of “centristd” instead.
We are at loggerheads right now because on very nearly every major issue nearly half the population wants to go left and nearly half of the population wants to go right. We don’t actually have any significant “extremists” of any kind. Obama isn’t an “extremist”, and if he were he wouldn’t be a threat to the Right’s agenda. Likewise, the Tea Party isn’t “extremist”, and if they were the Left wouldn’t be so afraid of them.
We should tell the politicos to lay off the “extremist” accusations. The word doesn’t mean what they think it does.