Do extremists help or harm more moderate like-minded parties?

Does Fred Phelps harm the anti-gay-rights cause by making it look evil and ridiculous? Or does he help it by making the Family Research Council look reaonable by comparison? Should the Sierra Club be resentful or thankful for the existence of Friends of the Earth? Is Anne Coulter the right wing’s best asset or its worst liability? Were Malcolm X and the Black Panthers good or bad for the civil rights movement?

Wow, great question.

I think it depends on the zeitgeist at the time that the groups come into being.

In terms of the Panthers and such, I think that collectively such groups helped to create a tipping point for the subject that helped overall to get people talking if for no other reason than to look into the matter enough to ward off those ‘extremists.’ (and I’m talking about changing hearts and minds; policies are another matter that are, of course, related but more complicated in terms of their provenances)

I think Phelps hurts the anti-gay-rights crowd if people suspect them of secretly thinking what Phelps does but lacking the courage to say so.

Overall, though, I think people tend to be easily triangulated. They like to think of themselves as moderates and extremists help them.

Well, it certainly gives the other side an easy way to demonize your politics. It’s easier to dismiss conservatives if you consider them all a bunch of bible-thumping, bigoted simpletons, and just as easy to dismiss liberals if you think they’re all tree-hugging hippies who belong to PETA.

But it’s the nature of our two party system to be so inclusive – if you simply must encompass the entire range of political beliefs in only two parties, you’re going to have to put up with the wingnuts on both sides.

First, I commend the OP on a really balanced and nuanced question for debate. I personally appreciate this contribution to GD.

In answer to the question: a little from column A and a little from column B.

In my view, shrill idiots on either side of a debate make the more moderate people on the same side look bad. If Yasser Arafat wore a suit, he’d have gotten a country.

But there’s another flavor to the debate. In an election year, people constantly claim they detest negative advertising – which, in most respects, is a good example of the triumph of crazy frothed-mouth babbling over actual fact. Yet almost always, the first one to “go negative” in a campaign sees his numbers increase as a result.

People reward this behavior, to an extent.

So I guess the answer is – for any given issue, there’s a curve… increasingly negative behavior in support of a cause trends slightly upward in terms of effectiveness to a point, after which the effectiveness drops off sharply as negative behavior continues to increase. We can call this point of discontinuity on the curve the Asshole Point.

Great question. I am going to steal from a fiction book (Ring of Fire). The protagonist is explaining the usefulness of having extremists on his side (he having been a former union negotiator).

I give the other side a choice, they can negotiate with me - or deal with them.

The Sierra Club benefits from ELF in that fashion (and the Nature Conservancy benefits from the Sierra Club).

I also think it is American capitalism in action - with economies of scale in politics, there is a separate organization / product for everyone.

  • You want to save the wilderness, but you like to hunt? Ducks Unlimited.
  • You want to slow down growth, but not through protests? Donate to the Nature Conservancy.
  • You want to use every legal means possible? Call the Sierra Club.
  • You are willing to do anything necessary? ELF is your place.

It allows you to have a spectrum of beliefs, without automatically being lumped with others who make you a bit uncomfortable.

1634, in the series. Mike Stearns mentions the old Malcolm X line about how the whites were willing to talk to MLK Jr, so that they didn’t have to talk to Malcolm. And how scary Gretchen is useful to Stearns in the here-and-now, and the rather intimidating Harry Lefferts was useful to have during his union negotiations. Just sitting to one side, looking like he’d like to rip the throats out of the other side.

As for the usefulness of extremists, it depends on how extreme both sides are. Sometimes nothing but the threat of violence will make the powerful deign to notice people with a grievance. In that case, people willing to be violent if necessary may be needed to get the powerful people in question to even talk with the less violent sorts.

On the other hand, some people won’t accept a reasonable compromise ( or ANY compromise ), and are going to be violent whether or not the other side is willing to negotiate. And in other cases, the violence is the point.

And in yet other cases, violence is the only solution to the problem in question, and it’s the extremists who are right to not compromise. Either right in the moral sense that the other side is evil and unreasonable, and that nothing but force will work, or right in the tactical sense that the goals of the movement are too unpopular/extreme to ever be accepted save by the application of force.

This may be a quibble, but I don’t think that negative advertising make the numbers of the mudslinger increase. I think that it depresses the numbers of the attacked candidate. The aim of most modern political advertising is to get the other guy’s supporters to stay home on election day. Look at the turnout numbers to see how effective it is.

Nitpick: Extremists are often, but are not by definition, those who would resort to force if given a chance. E.g., some extremists are absolute pacifists. They might commit crimes to obstruct or monkeywrench the system, but not any crimes that threaten anyone (else) with physical harm. See Gandhi – a “moderate,” perhaps, in comparison with some other Indian nationalists and with the Indian Communists, which is why the Brits sometimes found him preferable, but a hardcore extremist in that Indian independence was an issue on which he was under no circumstances willing to compromise; yet still a pacifist in his beliefs and in his tactics.

See George Orwell’s classic essay, “Reflections on Gandhi.”

I’m a member of a group, and as much as I loathe every encounter with someone who insists upon demonizing us and painting us all with the same brush, I passionately despise the extremists in my own group. I hold our extremists responsible for inciting the extreme opposition. I equate all haters. If you hate any group, you’re on par with the KKK and, cliche as it is, the Nazis.

Death to extremists, though not really!

So it’s wrong to hate the Nazis or the KKK ? Be realistic; some groups and some people deserve to be hated. And sometimes hatred is useful; it’s a good motivator. Saying “hate is always wrong” is lazy at best, and generally it’s moral cowardice.

It varies on a case by case basis, but, on balance, I bet the extremists help. The more numerous and better organized a particular extremist faction is, the further it will pull the “center” (i.e. the eventual point of compromise) in that direction.

EDIT: “. . . I bet the extremists help” = I bet they help more moderate like-minded parties, not help the situation in general. They tend be hurtful in general, of course.

It’s interesting to note that some version of this dynamic may have taken place/be taking place in Iraq like Anbar province with Sunnis reacting to what might be perceived as extremism of AQ in their immediate vicinity and seeing the US as comparably the moderates now. (And I’m not a supporter of the war or anything, I’m just talking about the logic of that type of thing **if **it were the true case; and I know lots of other things have gone/are going into why that dynamic is happening).

As Disraeli said, “Today’s extremist is tomorrow’s moderate.”

Mort, the Jewish-Vietnamese tailor: If Arafat wore a nice suit, he’d have a country by now.

Phred, Vietnamese Ambassador-Designate to the U.N., looking at the suit Mort has given him: It doesn’t say Third-World, dammit!

Why not use the last two US national elections as examples? Candidate Bush (and then President Bush) actively courted the far-right religious block to get (and remain) in office, but what has his party done for them in these seven years? Most, if not all of the issues those groups wanted action on have not moved in their favor at all, and the party still remained just a s powerful.

So I would say that, used properly, extremists help the party but the party doesn’t necessary provide any help, and may actually harm (by “leading them on”, so to speak, with promises of actually caring about their agenda) the extremists in the long run.

I think that etremists usually hurt the more moderate like-minded parties. All you have to do is look around. Extremism has led to almost every political problem you can see, has caused or fueled every pointless war, and has kept oppressed people under the boot heel.

Extremism (both Muslim and Jewish) is hindering a Palestinian state. Extremists made the USA intolerant and belligerent non-negotiating bastards. It’s almost never right, and it almost never helps.

It really depends.

We may defend moderation sometimes when we see the wackos running around, but (as an example) the Whig party was almost defined by its moderation - and made irrelevant because of it. The extremists on the slavery issue fled to either the Republicans or the Democrats and left an empty husk behind.

Would there be a place for the Whigs after the Civil War even if things had gone differently? I doubt it - their politics were defined entirely in terms of a Jacksonian political culture that was forever changed. Certainly the party wouldn’t have survived in any form recognizable to someone in the antebellum era. They’d have turned into Republicans in any case.

So the answer to the OP is it depends on the issue and the times. Cop-out, I know, but really it is the only way to see things.

BTW, I don’t want to hijack the thread, but how can Phelps be used to paint conservatives as anything (this seemed to be implied). He’s never been part of the conservative movement or the Republican Party at all, and in fact he still calls himself a Democrat.

Not to say that reflects on Democrats at all - certainly it doesn’t. But it shouldn’t reflect on Republicans either - his club is pretty small.

Doesn’t the answer depend on both history and your perspective. I’m sure, at the time, the instigators of the Revolutionary War were considered extremists. Because they won, current US residents call them heroes and say that they were good for the party. I would bet that when they started the war some of the moderates thought, “This is terrible for the cause, we should accomplish this through legal means.” The same people probably thought differently after the conclusion of the war, and said, “Well, we never would have accomplished what we did if we hadn’t started the war.” English residents probably called them the times equivalent of terrorists.

So, I think it depends on the outcome of the cause. If, 100 years from now, abortion is outlawed (not a scenario I’m interested in) and no legal abortion is considered “normal”, then the extremists would be favorably looked upon for having brought about the change. (Again, this was just the easiest one to think of, not my ambition.)