After 20 years of campaigning, I’m still surprised how rarely those of us engaged in the fight understand the big picture we’re part of.
When you’re fighting for a cause, you feel righteous, convicted, pure. Sometimes it’s a position taken after some degree of grappling with the other side, and the complexities of an issue. Often, there’s been little of that.
But what is often least clear to you, is that the people you are most helping, are your intended opponents. That together, you form a system, which has its own logic and direction, regardless of your intentions.
I first learned this in my Master’s degree on international security policy, and as a conflict analyst living and working in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan and Sudan. In Sierra Leone, I found to my surprise that in an incredibly brutal civil war with a massive death toll, the combatants typically avoided killing each other. They would fire a lot of ammunition during battles and whichever side perceived their disadvantage, even just from the sound of the opposing force, would withdraw.
This was not the result of a deal. They truly wanted to kill each other. But they simply didn’t want to die either. And the nature of war, the system of it, put the warriors at the top of the heap. Whomever controlled the contested town at the end of the day, would reap the spoils of pillage and oppression of the civilian population, as well as the psychological fruits of feeling one was nonetheless liberating or protecting those people. One day it might be the army, another the rebels, but what didn’t change was the position of advantage in society the occupying force enjoyed. Why mess that up by getting yourself killed in an actual firefight with people who shot back?
Noam Chomsky spoke of this dynamic on a geopolitical scale when he talked about the two dungeons, of the US and the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. The conflict between them forced other nations into their orbits and spheres of influence, and gave the superpowers a justification to meddle in the affairs of others. This was not just about oil and trade, it was also psychological. “War is a force that gives us meaning” proclaims the title of a book by Chris Hedges, who demonstrates its seductive power. When the Cold War ended, many Cold Warriors felt lost, without purpose for the first time in their lives.
When one is caught in such a system, it often doesn’t feel as tragic, because it’s hard to see it for what it is, or to see an alternative. Peace can seem a far-off dream - if you’re a partisan, you just dream of victory. If you're not a partisan, then the world can seem to be filled with flawed actors, but one usually appears worse than the other, so you choose your side.
But the tragedy of all this is both easy and terrible to see in a time of transition, in that liminal period when the system that governs our lives moves over from cooperation to conflict, from peace to war. Many countries are in such a moment right now.
In that moment, there are typically 4 sets or clusters of actors, with moderates and extremists on each side. When moderates dominate, extremists are often consigned to the fringe, usually enjoying relatively little power or prestige. But, if enough moderates can be radicalized to the extremes, the power dynamic flips, war ensues, and extremists run the show, and get the spoils.
It’s in the transition that the dance of extremists comes into play, and works its awful magic on all of us. The outrages of the extremists on one side spur the outrages of the extremists on the other, typically out of revenge or tit for tat. Each side uses such outrages to demonize everyone on the other side of the line - both moderates and extremists. This helps turn moderates against each other, and recruit more moderates into the extremist ranks. The effect of the dance of the extremists is ultimately to divide and radicalize nearly everyone. Usually by that point, war has already begun, and locked the divisions in place. At that point, moderation is treason, an unforgivable crime.
When President George W Bush set up Guantanamo Bay prison, a human rights free zone for the US military to imprison and torture terrorism suspects without trial, I designed and organized giant billboard ads in Washington DC with Osama bin Laden in a t-shirt that read “I (heart) Gitmo”. The point was that Bush could barely have designed a better recruitment tool for Al Qaeda, a better validation of their demonizing view of the United States. Sure, Bin Laden probably hated Gitmo, but practically, functionally, it was the best thing ever for him and his cause, and he probably understood that too.
Some of the darker and more savvy manipulators fully understand this dynamic, and milk it. I’ve heard many reports (though they’re hard to confirm) that Syrian President Assad used outrage at stories of mistreatment of civilians to organize Alawite and Christian militias to commit massacres of Sunni Syrians, guaranteeing reprisals against their own people - all to replace what might have been a widespread popular and unified democratic uprising against him with a brutal sectarian conflict. But many similar dark arts are well documented, such as the US Democratic Party spending tens of millions of dollars supporting extremist election-denying Trump supporters.
All of this analysis and these analogies apply to domestic political conflict, and the political polarization we see happening today in many countries. Normal, humdrum politics and democracy often involves a bunch of reasonable, fairly public spirited, and pragmatic folks trying to come to agreements on various problems in public policy. But movement politics is a far more full-blooded affair. It’s a fight for the soul of the nation, the future of the world, the survival of everything we love.
And in that environment of far higher stakes and deeper passions, it’s easy, even necessary, to have good guys and bad guys. To simplify. To demonize. And to seek more radical means by which to save the world. It’s not crazy, it all makes sense within its own perspective. It’s a perspective many of us live in every day. I know I often do. But what we don’t realize is that for all our moral certainty and passion, for all the rush of having millions join with you, and donations pour into your coffers, you are often creating the conditions for precisely the same thing to be happening on the other side.
Your tearful appeals to love and compassion, your cutting portrayals of the perfidy of the others, they all are mirrored on the other side. But often we don’t see that, because we might barely ever truly listen to the other side. Often we just keep track of soundbytes in our media bubble, which dutifully confirms our worldview. It would shock us to learn how similar we actually are to each other, yes, even in the love part. Especially in the love part. Political conflict, in democracies at least, isn’t a battle between hope and fear, love and hate, no matter how much some of us want to believe it. All human beings hope, and love. Only extremists think that their opposition lacks those qualities. Only fanatics demonize, or worse, dehumanize, their opposition.
I remember reading a message from someone on Facebook to the activist organization I ran, saying that they had attended both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton rallies, and they were shocked to find that the Clinton rally felt really dead, without any spirit, or love, and that the Trump rally was absolutely filled with love, for the people there, for the country, for the future. It was a double-take for me, and in some ways the beginning of a journey.
One way of understanding this dynamic is to stop thinking of politics, and conflict, as a spectrum, and start thinking of it as a circle. The far left and the far right actually have a lot more in common with each other than we think, and the centre left and right are often closer to each other than they are to the extremists. What extremists share is sometimes a matter of ideology - both are typically strongly tribalist rather than humanist, for example, but often it’s more a matter of culture and psychology - both tend to be more fearful, negative, demonizing, angry, fanatical, and a host of other qualities and characteristics that can lead for example, to the embrace of authoritarianism.
We are in a transition moment in many of our societies right now. A tragic, timeless story is playing out. It’s the story told in the Planet of the Apes, where one primate warmonger tries to provoke the most brutal humans to commit atrocities against his own clan, in order to consolidate the apes under his own brutal and aggressive rule. Extremists are prophets of warning about how evil and dangerous the enemy is, and are eager to provoke and seize on and even create evidence to back that view up.
The political equivalent of that is playing out right now in some countries, where the far left and right are both committing acts that the other side deems outrageous, and then shouting their outrage from the rooftops, often as they organize mobs to come after the moderates on their own side.
It’s the dance of the extremists, and it’s as old as the hills. It’s not conscious, or calculating. Not usually. It’s just what happens, how it’s done, how we fall - into conflict, into a new system in which the warriors rule, and the people are trampled underneath them. It’s a system change. As it gets going, new powers emerge, invested in the war. Leaders, organizations, institutions. A war system.
When US President Eisenhower, a military hero of WWII, left office, he warned Americans in his final televised address of a dangerous collusion between military contractors and the government that bought their weapons. He warned of a “military industrial complex” that was invested in the logic of war.
There’s a direct analogy to the leaders, organizations and institutions that benefit from political conflict. A conflict industrial complex. This institutionalization is often not sinister. Usually it’s justified as a necessary reaction to the actions of the other side. And just by sheer choice of what to study, what to emphasize, what to focus on and thrust into public attention, and what gets the most donations and most signups, they drive the death spiral of polarization ever deeper.
The excellent writer and scholar Anne Applebaum writes of this dance of the extremists, which she calls ‘cumulative extremism’, drawing on Roger Eatwell's excellent study of the relationship between English white nationalists and Islamic jihadists. She warns that history teaches us that this spiral tends to end in physical violence and war, unless moderates unite to prevent it, or some outside power intervenes. She laments that it’s hard to see such outside powers playing these roles for the US, and presumably other nations today.
I think citizens are that outside power. All of us. Moderates who can refuse to be radicalized and polarized, and refuse to demonize. Who stand up to the maximalists and say "No, it's not that bad. 'THEY' are not that bad." Who even have the capability to unite with citizens with different views. And not just moderates, but also, perhaps most powerfully, extremists who realize the game being played, the awful system being created, and have the courage to get outside their echo-chambers, stand up to their tribe, and counsel wisdom.
Extremists aren’t evil, they can play a valuable role - as a voice of conscience, a focused perspective, a cry for action, an outlet for anger, or an uncompromising push for change when it is needed. Sometimes extremists are right about something, and it’s moderates’ job to listen and be persuaded by their evidence and arguments, if not their threats.
The 'evil' is what results from a system where only extremists and fanatics have power. Where the extremist view is not just a perspective to be considered, but a governing ideology to which loyalty is viciously policed. This is what breeds systems like war, persecution and tyranny. To truly build healthy democracies we need to all develop a wider sense of the dance we are all part of, and the valuable roles that each of us have to play. But moderates tend to have more of that sense, and do a better job at listening to extremists for the value they bring, and leaving aside the rest. That’s one of the reasons why healthier, freer democracies and more educated societies not in the grip of fear or hatred tend to favour moderates to serve in governance.
Moderates aren’t necessarily political centrists, or defenders of the status quo - that is how extremists paint them, but they are more often defined more by the how of what they support than the what. Moderates and extremists often align on goals, but differ on how awful and desperate things are, and consequently how radical the action that is needed to address it. Extremists are sometimes willing to sacrifice other goods - human freedoms and rights, even human life - to attain their goals. Moderates tend to have a more relatively positive outlook on things in general, tend to be less angry, less fearful, less demonizing, more reasoned, and more fair in their assessments of differing views. Ultimately, the idea of moderation might be most associated with the old Catholic virtue of temperance. A vital antidote to fanaticism.
Extremists can be like warriors, powerful but dangerous instruments. They say they’re necessary, sometimes acknowledging that it’s unfortunate that they are. But this is where the dance comes in. Extremists on each side cite the other as the necessity for their existence. But that logic obscures the real question - do most of us want extremists to govern us?
Part of the reason it can be hard for many people to navigate all this is that extremists can be hard to spot. We all know the differences between politically extremist and moderate individuals in our lives, but often we can’t see the cultures of the movements that advocate ideals we agree with. The far left for example is famous for a dysfunctional, drama-ridden, self-obsessed culture - Monty python skits of fierce battles between the ‘People’s Front of Judea' and the ‘Judean People’s Front’ come to mind. But often we can’t see the presence of these types of cultures behind the ideologies and calls to action we’re presented with, action we might agree with on things like climate change, racism and poverty. (Or on the right, action on things like patriotism, cultural values and immigration) Partly for this reason, it’s often when most people have been won over to a cause, that extremists have their best shot at defeating moderates and dominating society. Ironically, it’s often when a struggle for progress has almost been won that the extremist poses the greatest threat. I call it the “late-stage radical hijack”.
I don’t mean to claim that the circumstances of our democracies are always equally the fault of the left and right. It varies, in complex ways. Each usually thinks the other struck first, or that the other side is ‘crazy’ while they’re being reasonable. Often one side really is more crazy or craven than the other. But regardless of the degree, the system tends to be there. If only one side is crazy, they tend to fragment and marginalize potential allies, losing elections. But if both sides have a crazy contingent, then you have a tango.
The press doesn’t love moderates or moderation - they’re not as sensational or terrifying or provocative, and social media algorithms love them even less - that’s a huge part of why humanity’s political dance has been upset these last few years. But if we are to avoid a death spiral of polarization that could easily end in war, we the people must do a better job of wise moderation and temperance as we engage deliberatively with and listen to our fellow citizens.
That is how cooler heads prevail, and stop a war. To do it, moderates of all stripes must stand up to their tribes, resist radicalization and demonization, and work together across the lines that would divide us to revive the lost virtue of temperance. If not, the dance of extremists, and the system of a conflict industrial complex, may take us to a darker world, once again.
PS - Some (particularly extremists) might say that extremism and conflict is just how change happens, but there is plenty of evidence that the greatest leaps in progress come in periods of relative unity and not through strife. The Cold War and WWII did not move humanity forward, the greater unity that followed them did. Revolutions have often overthrown oppression, but also often replicated it, in an “Animal Farm” process. Some might say that war and conflict and extremist excesses are just the perennial cycle of the human condition, just a swinging of a great pendulum. That may be true, but the game may have changed now. With the increasing power and complexity and fragility of our world, and a host of planetary challenges to face that pose a genuine threat of human extinction - can we afford to repeat the worst excesses and chapters of our history? Even if we survive it, history offers every reason for us all to be concerned to rein in the dance of the extremists and cumulative extremism going forward - to spare us tragedy, and seize our potential for progress.