The Utility of Extremism


One of the major issues with translating politics into action (as well metapolitics into politics) is the issue of where one’s positions fall relative to those of the audience he is trying to win over and what their own expectations are. Today there seems to be a stark binary on this issue; one side is either extremely picky about what they want out of the state or its leader while the other is utterly passive and low-information. But there is a simple truth that both the zealot and the bandwagoner should be able to grasp, if they genuinely care about the realization of their political positions.

So long as governments are what they are on both sides of the Atlantic, one’s policies will be compromised almost the minute they try to implement them. This doesn’t mean the guy in charge is weak or a sell-out per se, but literally means that you are forced to compromise with other members of the government and the previous purity of your theoretical ideas is compromised in the process of them becoming real.

And what that means is as follows: Extremism is necessary and proper to implement one’s political vision for the future in a democracy. It requires planning ahead and abstract thinking to be successful at ruling a country or guiding an institution. It is better to shoot for the moon and miss than to pick a closer target and miss that too. Don’t shy away from the extremes unless you want nothing important accomplished. To make this completely straightforward, let’s suppose there are two ideologies competing for authority and influence in the government, we’ll call them Factionalists and Partisans. Let us also suppose that we can plot these on a line, with someone who is a dyed in the wool Factionalist coming in at a score of -100 and a Partisan die-hard being 100. In other words, those at the extremities of their ideology are extremists. Unless you are truly ambivalent, by not supporting the furthest member of your party, you are likely opening yourself to compromising more than you wanted to (something which can stack over election cycles and become increasingly worse).

Suppose you are a Partisan and there are three people running for the Partisan nomination. One has a score of 10, the second has a 25 and the third has a 75. Meanwhile, the Factionalists also have three candidates vying for their top slot, a -55, a -60 and a -80. No matter who wins, they will set the tone for many if not most of their party members’ political attitudes and aspirations following the election, no matter what branch of government they are in. As a Partisan, if you go for the guy with a 10 or 25, and he manages to win, he is going to have to deal with opposition in the government that has a score between -55 and -80. You know what that means? It means you aren’t going to get a very Partisan governing agenda (unless you are in an authoritarian society); you will get a heavily-Factionalist influenced agenda. That is because, quite simply, the Factionalists care.

As a Partisan, if you want any Partisan agenda items to succeed at all when you are faced such high-scoring Factionalists, you need to back the highest scoring Partisan. Even when that 75 gets hit with a -60 when he tries to implement Partisan policies, he will still have the advantage of his own extremism and the effect an extremist victory had on his party’s alignment and the Overton window (the range of politically feasible and acceptable discourse and ideas). When you opt for a lower-scoring Partisan, you are conceding to the Factionalists before even formally being required to.

Of course, I am painting a very simplified picture here, and politics and negotiations are complex things. Furthermore, the binary of Ideology Alpha vs Ideology Beta is becoming more and more obsolete. But the fact of the matter is that there is not a whole lot to be gained if you go into negotiations from a position of meek deference. Don’t compromise yourself before coming to the negotiation table; that means you are only going to whittled down further.

Compromise happens in universally elected representative governments. There are too many interests for it to be avoided. And as a voter who believes in something, it is your job to make sure people who believe in things along the same arc that you do are elected so they can represent your interests. That’s the deal. When you say you don’t want to vote for so-and-so because you think he is too radical, you are saying you will only vote for the exact ideology you want as it appears before getting into office. And when that ideology gets into office and has to get translated into reality, unless you have an authoritarian government it will be watered down. So much for your perfect snowflake candidate.


A low-scoring Partisan can be watered down enough once in office to be a low-scoring Factionalist. If that is the result of your vote, then you have essentially voted your opponent into office. Now imagine this happening over and over again each election cycle. Eventually, today’s  Partisans will become tomorrow’s Factionalists, and today’s extreme Factionalists will be tomorrow’s establishment Factionalists. If you actually want a Partisan agenda to be implemented as closely as possible to what it was in theory, you should support the most Partisan candidate available. He can’t deliver everything anyway. The less extreme version of him that you might prefer is likely going to be him in office.

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14 Responses to The Utility of Extremism

  1. Murray Rothbard addresses this problem in “For A New Liberty”, and I think it’s worth reading at least the chapter “A Strategy for Liberty”. In essence: “Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice”. Again, this was written for the libertarian movement, but it is essentially the problem that the alt-right faces.

    “Cleaving to principle means something more than holding
    high and not contradicting the ultimate libertarian ideal. It also
    means striving to achieve that ultimate goal as rapidly as is
    physically possible. In short, the libertarian must never advocate
    or prefer a gradual, as opposed to an immediate and
    rapid, approach to his goal. For by doing so, he undercuts the
    overriding importance of his own goals and principles. And if
    he himself values his own goals so lightly, how highly will others
    value them?

    In short, to really pursue the goal of liberty, the libertarian
    must desire it attained by the most effective and speediest
    means available. It was in this spirit that the classical liberal
    Leonard E. Read, advocating immediate and total abolition of
    price and wage controls after World War II, declared in a
    speech, “If there were a button on this rostrum, the pressing of
    which would release all wage and price controls instantaneously,
    I would put my finger on it and push!”

    The libertarian, then, should be a person who would push
    the button, if it existed, for the instantaneous abolition of all
    invasions of liberty. Of course, he knows, too, that such a
    magic button does not exist, but his fundamental preference
    colors and shapes his entire strategic perspective.

    Such an “abolitionist” perspective does not mean, again,
    that the libertarian has an unrealistic assessment of how rapidly
    his goal will, in fact, be achieved. Thus, the libertarian
    abolitionist of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison, was not being
    “unrealistic” when in the 1830s he first raised the glorious
    standard of immediate emancipation of the slaves. His goal
    was the morally proper one, and his strategic realism came in
    the fact that he did not expect his goal to be quickly reached.
    We have seen in chapter 1 that Garrison himself distinguished:
    “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it
    will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said
    that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it
    ought to be, we shall always contend.”3 Otherwise, as Garrison
    trenchantly warned, “Gradualism in theory is perpetuity
    in practice.”

    Gradualism in theory indeed undercuts the goal itself by
    conceding that it must take second or third place to other nonor
    antilibertarian considerations. For a preference for gradualism
    implies that these other considerations are more important
    than liberty. Thus, suppose that the abolitionist of slavery
    had said, “I advocate an end to slavery—but only after ten
    years’ time.” But this would imply that abolition eight or nine
    years from now, or a fortiori immediately, would be wrong, and
    that therefore it is better for slavery to be continued a while
    longer. But this would mean that considerations of justice
    have been abandoned, and that the goal itself is no longer held
    highest by the abolitionist (or libertarian). In fact, for both the
    abolitionist and libertarian this would mean they are advocating
    the prolongation of crime and injustice”

    Liked by 2 people

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  10. This brings up the point of shifting the overton window as well.


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