Saturday, September 18, 2010

Extremism and presidential elections

When I was a high school kid in 1964, I had a long-distance friendship with Jim, who lived in a small town in southwestern Wisconsin. (A sign leading into town proclaimed it "The best town by a dam site," although I never figured out where the dam was.) We knew each other because our parents, recipients of the GI Bill, lived in together in subsidized housing in "Badger Village," a Quonset-hut married-housing community at the University of Wisconsin, and became life-long friends.

That summer I took a bus to visit him and stay with his family. We hit it off once again, except for one thing: He was for Goldwater in the 1964 election for president. Gack!

Of course, I wasn't alone. Goldwater lost by a landslide. It turned out that Goldwater wasn't exactly a savvy campaigner (He was known for speaking at nursing homes demanding an end to Social Security). His biggest blunder was his resounding assertion that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice!" This at a time when extremism was equated with campus radicals and inner-city riots, not to mention the fear that extreme anti-communism might lead to nuclear annihilation.

I think of this now as I read polls suggesting big GOP gains in November. This is hardly surprising - Americans have almost always voted against the party in power during bad economic times. But in a presidential election, extremism seldom plays very well. True believers, such as my friend Jim, tend to be rejected. One wonders if America's Tea Party types, heirs of Goldwater, will get the message.

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