When President Lyndon Johnson attempted to raise the subject of equitable arrangements among Americans, exemplified in his comprehensive attempt at a Great Society, he was pounded by extremists from both the Left and the Right. In his national attempts to tackle racism, poverty and illiteracy, he selected John William Gardner, his Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, to champion the movement. Gardner confessed years later that he wasn’t prepared for the criticism the administration’s initiatives received from both sides of the political spectrum. At one point through the process he uttered a statement that would have been as prescient in modern-day America or Canada as it was in his own time:
“Political extremism involves two prime ingredients: an excessively simple diagnosis of the world’s ills, and a conviction that there are indentifiable villains back of it all.”
Most governments are pragmatic and most people are moderate and logical, but they aren’t the complete picture. Always there are elements, individuals and groups, who can’t accept things are they are and who seek to disturb the status quo, choosing to replace equilibrium with extremism. It’s important to acknowledge at the outset that many such groups are responsible for some of our greatest democratic advancements, despite their unorthodox methods – women’s vote, labour rights, environmental watchfulness, et al. They remind us of what Martin Luther King Jr. said to one of his congregations: “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be … The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” Indeed.
Both political liberals and conservatives have each faced a kind of extremism that started out as creative but which eventually fell into the cracks of rigidity. For the Left it was the Occupy movement, and for the Right it has been the Tea Party. Both started out as citizen movements, clear in purpose and committed to change. While the Left largely left Occupy to its own devices, Republicans engaged in an awkward embrace of the Tea Party as a means of galvanizing its far-right base.
Both groups of extremes started out building on a bubbling potential within the general population. Had they nurtured that latent connection, the outcome of their efforts might have been different. Yet somehow, in the end, both groups alienated the very constituencies they required for success.
Responses to the Occupy movement varied, depending on the regions of the country they operated in. Initially the interest among the larger population was more than just passing. I spoke with numerous individuals and groups in cities across Canada as a result of my own attempt to assist Occupy and I felt their interest was genuine. As in the case of London, Ontario, there arrived a moment of great import when Occupy organizers had to determine if they would open up their organizational methods to new ideas and practices that would attract more of the larger population. At some point in various locations the decision was made to restrict such advancements. From there the outcome became inevitable. Unwilling to moderate their own extreme modus operandi, they inevitably fell into the historical trap of seeing villains within the broad electorate when there weren’t any. Many attempted the use of reason with Occupy organizers, not to change the channel, but to permit them to attract a broader audience. It was not to be, and to this day Occupy folks continue to assail, not only the establishment (which is valid), but those who attempt to assist (which is fallacy).
The Tea Party started out talking about family, ethics, debt and defense of communities and found immediate acceptance, even among moderates. But by the time the more radical elements of the movement began capturing media attention, the very same moderates began moving off. The integral heart of the movement was suddenly dwarfed by the politics of extremism that eventually undermined the campaign of Republican Mitt Romney.
Any attempt to assist Occupy and Tea Partiers was seen as dealing with the very devil (the Establishment) that they felt bound to oppose. With no compromise possible, the real tragedy is not to be found in the ostracism now facing both Occupy and the Tea Party, but the loss of potential in empowering average citizens to get involved in the process to bring about necessary reform. For many attempting to work with such groups there was the belief that reason, logic and compassion could earn them a spot on the roster, but what they received was stark criticism and opposition.
I have been asked on a number of occasions by newspapers to write reflective pieces on the first anniversary of Occupy, mostly through my involvement with the movement in its early days. I refused and I’m still not sure why. Perhaps it’s because of the needed truth they housed before they let extremism spoil their birthright. To this day I still feel a passion for their early message of financial justice. But I have learned that when such groups fall into the hands of the more radical elements that they can still fight but can no longer fly – they couldn’t sell it, and we are all impoverished for that failure, as am I. And, as with Obama and his Republican opponents, we are now left with the option of trying to reform the system from within.