Mark Johnson: Centrists and moderates should blame themselves for today’s extremism

Neutralize the fanatics by solving their problems
Protesters hold flares during a demonstration, in Nantes, western France, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. Jeremias Gonzalez/AP Photo.

There has been an awful lot of worrying, hand-wringing, and doomsaying recently among the political class about the polarization and extremism that appears to have gripped our contemporary political debate. “Democracy is under attack!” they shout. Yes, indeed it has become a bit raucous lately, if not downright sinister. It comes from both edges of the political spectrum. The right-wing, anti-vax, freedom convoy cranks at one end, and at the opposite end we have the kooky, left-wing, woke crowd who rename schools, hate the police, and insert “colonialism” into every sentence.

Centrists and moderates on the Right and Left can bemoan it all. But here’s the thing: blame yourselves. 

Our political system must hold the trust and confidence of those who it claims to represent and serve. When the system is seen as dysfunctional because of the repeated failures of those who control it to solve politically difficult problems, then voters of all stripes will turn against it.

Full disclosure up front: I’m a moderate Conservative who ran for Parliament in Toronto in the 2021 federal election. I sit somewhere between Red Toryism and social conservatism. I’m appalled at the recklessness and shortsightedness of some in my party who cater to the fanatics. But I’m equally discouraged and disappointed by the unwillingness of moderates who fail to confront the unpleasant, hot-button issues for fear of giving offence to polite company.

People don’t talk about green energy tax credits, NATO, or energy policy when they’re having drinks after work. It’s too abstract. The problems they see every day, the ones they easily understand, the issues that get under their skin are the ones that rile and energize them. Many of these issues may be risky, politically incorrect ones that involve the unpleasant aspects of modern life. That’s more reason for right-minded, responsible, mature leaders to solve these nettlesome issues. If they don’t, they cede the ground to the extremists and fanatics on both sides. That’s what happened.

On the Right, the illogical Covid restrictions that went on for too long, wokeism, the destruction of statues and historical heroes, and our porous borders are a few of the aggravators. On the Left, it’s the police unions who block reform and protect bad cops, entrenched intergenerational poverty now largely delineated by race, mega-rich CEOs who lay off workers despite high profits, and perennially missed greenhouse gas targets. To name a few. 

Mainstream politicians have failed to solve these problems. When reasonable political leaders fail to address the high profile, unpleasant and tough issues, then party members and voters will find someone who will. And if that means electing some loudmouth screwballs, then they’ll do it. Be warned. 

Moderate party orthodoxies must address the prickly problems. Conservatives should accept that higher income and capital gains taxes on the super-wealthy are not an offence against capitalism or conservatism. Neither is lowering the boom on bad cops. Moderate liberals must stop being silent on the left-wing McCarthyism of cancel culture and the nihilism of critical race theory. 

Former President Obama and prominent Democratic strategist James Carville recently opined on the unwillingness of Democrats to confront the extremists that are dominating the Left. Said Carville, “I mean, this ‘defund the police’ lunacy, this take Abraham Lincoln’s name off of schools. I mean that —people see that.” He adds: “Some of these people need to go to a ‘woke’ detox centre or something. They’re expressing a language that people just don’t use, and there’s backlash and a frustration at that.”

Yet the problem runs deeper than simply choosing your electoral platform and communications strategy. It’s trite that the hardest part of solving a problem is admitting you have one. Conservatives and Liberals both need to admit to the gaps and shortcomings in their political performance. 

Why do left-wing extremists want to defund the police? Perhaps because we collectively failed to weed out bad cops over the decades. Why do right-wing extremists continue to bang on about “the elites”? Perhaps because we the elite have collectively ignored their needs and sneered at them for a generation now. 

Brokerage-style political parties like the Conservatives and Liberals are supposed to be broad, nimble, and flexible enough to capture and contain a vast array of political currents. Politicians are supposed to be brave enough to debate touchy issues and drive toward common-sense solutions. 

Moderates on the Right and Left need to stop tut-tutting and clutching their pearls. Get in the game, propose common sense solutions to these problems, and by doing so blunt the anger. Neutralize the fanatics by getting out there first and solving the problems that fuel extremism.

Moderates should get on it. Or someone else will. 

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