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Where are all the moderates?

Navigating competing bigotries

Welcome to 2021 and Byte Size's first post of the year. 2021 will (hopefully) be a better year than the last with widespread vaccinations on the horizon. This first post is on centrism and navigating modern extremism - but first a little bit of history.

The Red Scare was a witch hunt for communists during the 1940s-50s in the United States. Joseph McCarthy went on a crusade to find communists who had supposedly infiltrated the United States. Rumour and intimidation were key tactics. McCarthy established himself as a leading figure in United States politics. He denounced those who disagreed with his views labelling them 'Un-American'. Proper evidence was optional.

McCarthy's terror fed off Cold War fears of the Soviet Union and the risk that Soviets had penetrated the highest levels of government. Fear of communism bolstered McCarthy's own power and legitimacy to conduct investigations. McCarthy's work unveiled a network of communists spies - both real and imagined.

The Red Scare was an extremist conservative response to the threat of communism in the United States. It offers insight into how reasonableness and evidence get lost as zealots create panic and cliques feed within themselves to see who can be the most faithful to an ideal. In the case of the Red Scare, the ideal was anticommunism.

Today, several types of modern extremism within rich democracies have emerged that threaten social systems. Two that come to mind are the alt-right characterised by far-right ideas (e.g. anti-socialism) and white nationalism, and the woke left characterised by radical social justice and identity politics.

These movements are not opposites and exist independently of each other, but they do complement and antagonise each other. Both movements are trying to shift society towards their set of moral beliefs.

Moderate pulled two ways

Anakin: 'If you're not with me... then you're my enemy!'

Obi-Wan: 'Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'

Extremists can't handle the existence of other ideologies, seeing them as competition.

The alt-right support of white supremacy and authoritarian ideals threatens hard-won democratic and economic freedoms for various demographic groups. Their support for protectionist policies risks global trade and economic prosperity. You might see these people discussing the virtues of Trump's United States-Mexico wall - but to be absolutely clear, being a Trump supporter does not make someone alt-right.

The alt-right and conservatives are distinct groups differentiated by the alt-right's obsession with race-based politics. Conservatives sign-up to their political philosophy independent of race.

'Woke left' ideology supports socially progressive views based on race, gender etc. - which is of course a good thing. The issue is the hypersensitivity of its adherents. Over the top shaming and cancel culture supported by the woke left has destroyed lives. Context doesn't seem to matter. Ironically from a capitalist perspective, the woke left appears to alienate the working class the economic left supported through the labour movement.

The alt-right and woke left compete over issues of race, economic equality and migration etc., but there are similarities between the two in terms of intolerance. Both groups pursue an ideal that is incompatible with progressive society.

Eventually, the Red Scare devolved into violence and bullying. Like McCarthyites before them, adherents to these ideologies propose oppression as a solution. We see this in cancel culture and alt-right racism.

Adherents to extreme views feed off eachother to see who can be the most zealous, reinforcing the ideologies and making them more extreme. Extremists think of those opposed to them as being the enemy.

Moderate views get lost amidst binary thinking

Moderate viewpoints are challenging to hold on to and discuss with extremists thinking in binary terms, and misunderstanding nuance. During the Red Scare stating left-wing beliefs was enough to get you in trouble, regardless of whether you believed in communist ideals. Extremists often don't 'get' the distinction in viewpoints. Arguments or opinions with extremists often look like a set of beliefs rather than being evidence-based.

A moderate could be characterised in a number of ways, for example:

  • Economically: supportive of market-based solutions while also understanding there are areas for government involvement and a need for some equality and equity.

  • Institutions: understand the importance of government institutions long-term, even though they can be frustrating and in need of reform.

  • Discrimination: understand unconscious bias (e.g. stereotyping) and deliberate forms of discrimination (e.g. Nazism).

  • Religion: belief in the teachings of Christ without believing God created the Earth in seven days.

It's about the blend between left, right, authoritarianism and liberalism. There are many views that could be characterised as moderate depending on your definition. It's not necessarily a 'middle' position or being 'undecided', but it does reject extremes.

Moderatism doesn't make great TV. For that reason, it doesn't get a lot of airtime and the views of moderates can be hidden beneath binary ideologies rather being seen as separate and distinct.

Nuance gets lost navigating the complexity of viewpoints. It is not contradictory, for example, to believe that it is ok for an alt-right adherent to express themselves on the grounds of free speech, without actually agreeing with what they have to say. That viewpoint would put you at odds with both the alt-right and woke left.

It's a totally different lens, but isn't likely to get moderates marching in the streets because the stakes are lower for moderates given their acceptance of multiple outcomes and compromise.

The polarisation of modern society isn't doing moderates any favours either. Digital and real-world silos of like-minded people means ideas are less likely to be challenged and 'moderated'. Moderates too get pulled towards the side they are leaning through this reinforcement process.

The consequence of greater polarisation is that it's harder to find common ground to advance useful policy. Today, the proportion of people in the United States that consistently hold either conservative or liberal opinions has doubled from 10% to 21%.

The alt-right and woke left feed off each other

It's unlikely the woke left and alt-right would be as unified and effective without the existence of the other.

The woke left unifies the alt-right around a common group of hypersensitive people susceptible to trolling. The woke lefts’ obsession with social justice is tinder for alt-right racism. Similarly, without the alt-right, there would be few overt racists and sexists for the woke left to attack. They would be swinging at the straw person they delight in creating.

Support for extremist groups is particularly concerning for the way it has entered the political arena in recent years. Think of Brexit, or Trump's support for the alt-right. The recent attack on Capitol Hill by Trump supporters demonstrates how intolerance and extremism are undermining democracy. Moderates, however, outnumber the extremists and need to make their voices heard above the craziness.

It took McCarthy overreaching and criticising the United States (US) military and war heroes before moderates stood up to him, and he lost his hold on US politics. Perhaps Trump's electoral demise will be a similar turning point for modern extremism? We will have to wait to see.


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