The Power of Rhetorical Radicalism

Shortly after Kent State, my dad went to visit my (jazz musician) uncle, who was in his rail-thin fruititarian phase. My uncle spent an hour eating oranges one after the other from a large box, talking about how protein requirements were a conspiracy of the meat industry, and how the CIA was going to assassinate student activists and install a military dictatorship. At the end of the hour, he finished the last orange and said, “and if you think I’m crazy, you should see some of the people I hang out with.”

Which is to say that everyone has a left wing– almost everyone experiences themselves as nowhere near the ideological extreme of their comrades and acquaintances. The interesting thing is how often the appearance of ideological extremism is an aid, not a hindrance, in political debates. Much electronic ink has been spent on how extreme or not Donald Trump “really” is, but it’s safe to say that it has been liberals and political opponents within the GOP who have most often said that he is less radical than he appears, while his supporters are often content with the image of him as an extremist (albeit an extremist for their interests.) On the left, this pattern is perhaps equally clear: Clinton fights back at Sanders’ threat not by painting him as an out-of-touch septuagenarian socialist but by trying to position herself as to his “left” on issues of identity politics.

The political scientists have explanations for both these patterns specific to increasing ideological alignment of political parties and sorting of voters. But it seems to me that in both cases the better (or at least additionally necessary) explanation is Scott Alexander’s description of the formation of tribalism; ideology becomes a marker of group identity, and so ideological extremism becomes a marker of loyalty to the tribe. As our tribal loyalties to Nebraska or the Bronx fade, political loyalties replace them.

I bring this up because I have been fascinated by the extent to which Jonathan Chait, who basically takes it as his duty to defend current Democratic Party orthodoxy, is treated not as merely boring and squishy but as actively disgusting and contemptible by left-leaning Twitter users and online writers. He is defending the status quo, but whether he is arguing that contemporary liberalism is superior to Marxism, or that black Americans’ problems are not solely the result of current discrimination and white supremacy, he seems to prove not only that no debate is too easy to lose, but – given the vituperative reaction to him- that many people who are perfectly happy to live within a set of policies are very loathe to hear them defended. (Suffice it to say that I prefer liberal corporate capitalism to Marxism because I like the cheap wine I buy from Trader Joe’s and my kids like the burritos, and also because I would rather not be woken up in the middle of the night to be shot. But opinions on these matters evidently differ.)

An interesting question is how asymmetric is this desire for radical rhetoric (whether or not it is accompanied by a sincere desire for radical policy). Anyone who uses Twitter or spends much time online realizes that the median Twitter user is well to the left of the median voter, and that left-leaning journalists and intellectuals often have followings an order of magnitude larger than right-leaning ones of similar nominal stature. But it would be interesting to capture whether the median online activity is to the left of the users themselves. This would be one of Moldbug’s more plausible hypotheses- that status signaling activities like online content have an inherently  left bias. (Of course, this is what Freddie DeBoer says, too, since their critiques are more-or-less the same.)

The alternative hypothesis is that it is radicalism itself that has the edge, regardless of its stripes, and Toxoplasma will always reign supreme.

Until this year, I would have thought that the boring center would still hold indefinitely. But while everyone will no doubt still know someone crazier than themselves, it seems less and less of us will admit it.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s