Politics in America has tended to move toward a deeper expression of extremism over the last few decades. Opinions differ about what started this negative trend. Some think it began with the Watergate mess. Others think it became even worse during the Clinton era, especially when conservative ministers tried to discredit Clinton with a number of lies. This culminated in the impeachment trial. Still others think this only got worse in the wake of 9/11 and the bitter opposition that grew in response to George W. Bush. Now it seems to have reached an even higher level of intensity with the bitter reaction of many conservatives to President Obama.
The presidency of Ronald Reagan may have been the only time, and perhaps the four years of the President George H. W. Bush right after him, when we have not had fierce extremism in the popular culture since the 1960s. Could Reagan's humor, and his upbeat spirit, have helped him overcome some of this? But even then extreme liberals despised Ronald Reagan and tried to find various ways to discredit him morally.
What astounds me is the level to which all of this has descended in recent years. Talk radio and 24/7 television has not helped. Indeed, it may have promoted more of this than ever. One whole movement of extreme conservative voices exists in what are called "the birthers." Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs have actually given credence to this movement. These people believe that Obama is not a legitimate president because he was not born on U. S. soil, which means he is not a legitimate U. S. citizen. This movement strikes me as not only extreme but as very dangerous. If we can undermine the whole electoral process, much as extremists did on the left after the Supreme Court decided that Bush won Florida in 2000, then we can undermine the whole legitimacy of our government. Extremists are always willing to discredit and destroy in the name of their agenda and goals.
The extreme right now employs not-so-subtle forms of race baiting. Glenn Beck recently proclaimed that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people." Democrats seek to paint the Republicans as "right-wing, Southern bigots" who oppose minorities, women, gays and immigrants. But during the previous eight years the shoe was often on the other foot. I believe President Obama campaigned successfully precisely because he was able to put some distance between his campaign and the fringe left. He was able to defuse Republican attacks that painted him as the most liberal and extreme of all possible Democrats. Republicans have used this approach ever since Vietnam, saying all Democrats will not protect the nation militarily. Democrats have used the same approach always saying that Republicans will destroy Social Security, to use one common campaign standard.
But we must understand that political extremism is a bipartisan problem. 28% of Republicans, in a recent poll, said they did not believe Barack Obama was born in the U.S. But another poll, taken in 2007, revealed that 35% of Democrats believed President Bush actually knew in advance that 9/11 was going to happen. Both extremes are bad but the second is, to my mind, even nuttier than the first. Neither party can completely disavow this extreme nonsense. The "fanatical fringe" is alive and well. The question is just how large are these extremist movements? And how much influence does this really have in the mainstream?
We know some things about the fanatical fringes. On the right they segregate themselves with like-minded ideologues on the Web, listen to certain talk radio hosts and watch Fox News. On the left they love Michael Moore and Air America and MSNBC. The more people on both sides stoke their views with extreme ideas the more they tend to segregate themselves from people they disagree with. One blogger, David Paul Kuhn, says that "from this mutual incomprehension, outlandish conspiracy theories are born." I totally agree.
The two parties have been drawn into a policy of loyalty to their agenda, which is really a desire to keep or regain their political power. Few seem willing to find a way of compromise that will work for the greater good of the nation. The present health care debate underscores this very point. Both sides are accusing the other of nefarious and ugly conspiracies and lying. I do not know about you but this health care bill runs to over 1,000 pages. I haven't read it but then you probably haven't either. But the problem here is that no one in Washington seems to have read it either. Everyone should be asking questions rather than endorsing either side in a battle that is so clearly drawn along the lines that we have become used to in this country.
I run into the influence of this extremism regularly. I had a talk a few days ago with a man who was quite liberal. He got very angry even though I didn't promote any particular idea seriously. He face grew flush, his veins popped and he completely lost it. He made it know that he hated George Bush. He believed that Bush is the worst man to ever hold office in America. At the same time I run into Christians every week who hate President Obama so deeply that they seem to think this is their primary reason for getting up every morning. They will do anything, including lie and use anger in unrighteous ways, to let everyone know just how much they hate this man.
Ironically, both Bush and Obama are professing Christians. Their testimony to God's grace is known and can be read by all fair minded people. I, for one, accept them both at face value and judge their political views one-by-one. I fear this approach is now seen as weak and lacking in integrity by a large, growing number of Americans. This is why I think extremism is on the rise. I also believe that it is harming the mission and witness of the church very profoundly.