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In modern politics, the “extremists” are usually those labeling others with that word

RGN 2012A key Democratic Party tactic being used against incumbent Republican Congressman Mike Coffman (R.-Colo.) is to brand him an “extremist.” So what else is new?

Politics is fully of incongruities, and the use of the term “extremist” by the Left to tar more conservative opponents is one of the richest. For example, the Left’s current political leader, President Obama, says he wants to “fundamentally transform[] the United States of America”—that is, to change America fundamentally or radically. By definition, that makes Obama and his supporters “extremists,” and it renders Coffman who opposes such radical change, a “moderate.”

As far as I can tell, the first widespread use of the “extremist” label was in the 1964 presidential election campaign, when liberals so tagged Senator Barry Goldwater. Yet Goldwater’s Senate voting record was well within the American mainstream. His domestic platform rested largely on following the Constitution, and his foreign policy was drawn from traditional principles later used effectively by President Reagan. By contrast, his opponent, Lyndon Johnson, was advocating extreme positions: massive expansions in the role of the government in American life and untested foreign policy principles. But Johnson, the extremist, managed to claim the mantle as a moderate and to tag Goldwater, the moderate, as an extremist!

America’s rise from 13 tiny coastal states to the world’s greatest nation occurred over the period from ratification of the Constitution in 1788-89 until about 1930—a period of about 140 years. During this period, America was a magnet for people from around the world and the center of global innovation. Annual economic growth far exceeded the record of subsequent years. During this period, the quality and length of life improved hugely for the overwhelming majority of Americans, even those in the lowest classes.

There were two central reasons for American success—two elements key to the American experience:

*    A mostly-shared cultural heritage: dominant patterns of religion, work, ideals, and education; and

*    Freedom: very limited government constrained by state and federal constitutions.  During this period, total state-local peacetime government spending generally was less than 8% of GDP—less than 1/5 of what it is now.

Other factors sometimes cited as crucial to American success—vast territories, natural resources, and public education—were helpful, but not central. Public education was not universal until late in the 19th century. Nations like Russia, China, and Brazil also had vast territories, frontiers, and resources, but were nowhere near as successful. And the other outstanding success story of the era, Great Britain, was small and resource-poor, but did share the American devotion to freedom and the western cultural heritage.

The modern “progressive” project has centered on changing the key factors of culture and freedom: attacking the culture, undermining constitutional restraints on government, and expanding the public sector until it dominates American life. A group that seeks to topple the central pillars of a system is by definition “extremist,” no matter what they call their opponents.

Be aware that how politicos use the epithet “extremist” has nothing to do with substantive reality and a lot to do with electoral reality. Polls and focus groups tell us it’s an effective word for smearing your opponent, especially among certain demographic groups of voters. That’s why it is used so often, and, unfortunately, without much regard for facts.

Rob Natelson