The Solution to Fighting Extremism: Choose The Middle

  By: Joe Messerli

The Polarization of America

Extremism in American thinking has grown to epidemic proportions. I'm talking about more than just the kind of extremism that leads to someone piloting planes into buildings; I'm talking about extremes in ideology and opinions. Americans have divided themselves into rigid camps: Democrat vs. Republican, Anti-War vs. Pro-War, Liberal vs. Conservative, Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life, Black vs. White, Right vs. Wrong.

Most controversial issues we face nowadays don't have any easy solution. However, more and more people continue to throw their support on one side of an issue, ignoring the fact that both sides often have good arguments. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, George Bush, Ann Coulter, Fred Barnes and others are convinced the conservative side of issues is
completely correct. Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Alan Colmes, and many Hollywood stars are convinced that everything President Bush does is wrong. It's become almost a reflex action nowadays: whenever Bush or another prominent Republican states a policy, no matter what the position, liberals attack it. And the same was true of conservative attacks on Bill Clinton.

Conventional wisdom says 30-40 percent of the population will always vote Republican and 30-40 percent will always vote Democrat no matter who the candidate is or his/her stance on the issues. What's worse is that an atmosphere of hatred and antagonism has spread throughout the political landscape. Conservatives refer to the "loony left" or the Hollywood "left coast". Liberals refer to "right wing fanatics". Congress bickers to gridlock on virtually every issue. And political books attacking the other side have become fixtures of the New York Times Bestseller List. Observe the titles of some of the more popular ones:
The list goes on and on. Even if these books are meticulously researched and prove their case beyond a shadow of a doubt, they aren't going to change anybody's mind on the other side. To illustrate, how many liberals are going to buy the book Why the Left Hates America ? Probably very few. What percentage of this book's purchasers do you think fall into the conservative camp? It's probably a high number. The result is that no one on the left changes their mind and people who are already conservative are going to be more entrenched in their views and more hostile to the other side.

Not only are people dividing themselves into ideological extremes, they are often supporting a
platform of ideas rather than debating each one individually. To illustrate, liberals generally are pro-choice, are anti-war, advocate more government, support more social spending, and oppose tax cuts. Conservatives generally are pro-life, support increased defense spending, oppose an increase in social spending, and advocate tax cuts. On virtually every issue, there is a Democrat position and an opposite Republican position. The damage comes in when you consider that extreme liberals or conservatives start to support everything on the agenda of "their side" rather than debate each issue individually. Politicians must often change their public stance rather than take the one they truly believe in their hearts. For example, a person cannot secure the Democratic presidential nomination unless he or she is pro-choice. Virtually all politicians can find an issue in which they disagrees with the stance of their party but are unable to advocate publicly.

Clearly, there's a problem here. Rather than engage in intelligent discussion of both sides of an issue, political debate has turned into an "us vs. them" mentality. This mentality leads to a breeding ground of extremism. If you don't believe me, watch a single episode of CNN's
Crossfire or the Fox News show Hannity and Colmes . The next section discusses the basic psychology of brainwashing and why so many of us now fit into that category.

The Basics of Brainwashing and Extremism

As described above, most politicians and media commentators have become extreme in their views. All of us can probably think of a couple people in our lives who are extreme in their opinions and will never change their minds no matter how much logic, reason, and evidence is presented to them. People who are extreme in their thinking have in effect been brainwashed one way or the other. Let's examine the common characteristics of brainwashing and how they relate to political views.

Bombardment of Information

The first technique of brainwashing is bombarding an individual with information that supports a certain point of view. For example, if you listen to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity for several hours a day, you're likely to form conservative opinions on most issues. You're constantly hearing opinions, evidence, and logic that detail why conservatives are right and liberals are wrong. Conversely, if you look to the magazine The Nation or the New York Times for all your news and commentary, you're likely to form liberal opinions. Either side may be right or wrong, but when you only hear positive things about a certain political philosophy and only hear negative things about the opposite side, the brainwashing has begun.

Biased Seeking Out of Information

Generally speaking, there is a very real human tendency to seek out information that confirms your existing beliefs and ignore or discount information that contradicts your current beliefs. For example, if you're an atheist, you're more likely to read magazines like American Atheist or frequent the website for Freedom from Religion Foundation . If you're Christian, you're more likely to read Christian Magazine or read the literature of Focus on Family . Conversely, how many Christians do you know that read American Atheist ? That kind of bias naturally makes it's way into politics. If you're liberal, how likely are you to subscribe to the conservative Limbaugh Letter ? If you're conservative, how likely are you to read Al Gore's books? Consider a feminist is convinced single motherhood has no adverse effects on the raising of kids. Imagine a psychology journal article is released that scientifically proves children of single moms have more mental problems and more often choose a life of crime. What do you think the reaction of that feminist would be? If she's like most humans, she probably won't read the article, or if she does, she will look for inconsistencies or flaws in the research. All of this biased seeking out of information just leads us to become more and more extreme in our thinking, and in a vicious cycle, causes us to seek out more information that supports our views while discounting contradictory viewpoints.

Social Approval/Disapproval

One of the most fundamental techniques of behavior or thought modification is operant conditioning. This is a psychological principle that says behavior that's rewarded tends to be repeated and behavior that's punished tends to diminish. When it comes to political issues, rewards and punishments tend to come in the form of social approval or disapproval. To find an ideal example of this tendency, you need not look any further than the Hollywood elite, or what's often called the "left coast". For decades, movie and TV personalities have been extremely liberal in their politics. The most recent demonstrations of this liberalism are the incessant attacks on President Bush over anything and everything. Despite the fact that the majority of the American public supports the president's actions in the War on Terror, the opinion is Hollywood is almost universally opposed. How do you explain this universal extreme opinion? It's simple--social approval/disapproval. If you take a liberal stance in Hollywood, you're praised and included in social activities. If you oppose the liberal stance, you're ostracized and ridiculed. In fact, an actor will often be blacklisted for taking a conservative political stance in Hollywood (as detailed in Tammy Bruce's book The New Thought Police ). The same social approval applies to people around the country. This is why we have certain areas of the country that always elect a Democrat and certain areas that always elect a Republican. This is why people who work with or hang out with members of the Democratic National Committee become more liberal in their views, and vice versa for RNC members.

As pointed out earlier, humans usually seek out literature and TV programs that support their current view; however, they also seek out
people that support their current views. Thus, an extreme conservative is more likely to hang out with fellow conservatives. An extreme environmentalist is more likely to seek out fellow environmentalists. This causes two problems: first, it reinforces the information-seeking bias. In other words, friends may point out information that further supports your views and ridicules the other side. For example, a group of conservatives gets together and talks about "the idiotic thing Democratic minority leader Pelosi" said today. The second problem is what I call the "everybody thinks the way I do" phenomena. When you only hang out with people that believe what you do and don't hang out with people that have contradictory beliefs, you tend to believe that everyone shares the same opinions. How many times have you heard a politician say "President so-and-so is not in touch with the American people". Often, this is simply the result of the politician not spending time with people who have opposite viewpoints. If you only hang out with anti-war activists, you tend to believe almost all people are against the war.

Groupthink and Other Thought-Control Techniques

There are a number of other thought-control techniques that I will briefly touch on. For more extensive discussions of these, read The New Thought Police by Tammy Bruce or Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascos by Irving Janis. Groupthink is a psychological term used to describe the tendencies of groups to place group harmony and consensus over doing the right thing. As group members, each is in fear of group rejection or being the lone voice of dissent. Anybody who speaks out is promptly squashed for disrupting group agreement. Eventually, group members don't speak out and the impression is created that everyone agrees with a certain position. An example is Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion. Many policy makers saw weaknesses in the invasion plan, but no one wanted to speak out and be the lone voice of disagreement. Dissent is often squashed by using personal attacks. For years, fair and balanced discussions of such things as racism, affirmative action, homelessness, and feminism have been muted by the use of personal attacks. For example, if someone questions whether affirmative action is still necessary in today's society, that person is immediately labeled a racist rather than debated on the merits of his argument. Since people (especially politicians) often will do anything to avoid being labeled a racist; the opposing argument simply isn't discussed. All these groupthink/squash-dissent techniques lead to more extremism with little chance of pulling some people back to the middle.

War with the Other Side

As I've talked about previously, rigidly arguing or attacking the other side rarely changes the mind of people who have opposite views. In fact, it usually causes them to become even more firm in their beliefs. If I say to you "You're an idiot, and I'm going to tell you why....", does this cause you to open up your mind to my ideas? If you're like most humans, a statement like that will put you on the defensive and you will strive to justify or explain your views. And in the process, you're likely to hold onto your views even tighter. Unfortunately, a verbal attack by one side often leads to a verbal attack from the other side. Then, a vicious cycle begins. The end result is two sides firmly entrenched in their beliefs and loaded with negative feelings toward the other side. For a more extensive discussion on this point, read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

The Solution: Why You Should Choose the Middle

The solution to these problems is to take a middle-of-the-road approach to politics and to encourage others to do the same thing. I'm not saying you should be exactly in the middle of the conservative-liberal continuum. I'm saying that for most issues, the extreme position is wrong. The correct answer is almost always somewhere in the middle. Thus, a person should do a balanced study of both sides of an issue. If you're already firm in your belief for an issue, pretend you're a lawyer preparing to debate the merits of the other side of the issue. For example, if you firmly believe in capital punishment, invest some time to find all the information you can on why the death penalty should be banned.

Let's examine the advantages of more people taking a balanced, party-independent approach to political and social issues:

Lessening of the Hostile, Adversarial Environment

A middle-of-the-road approach to politics means there is less chance people will gravitate to one party or the other. What do you think would be more persuasive, saying "You're wrong and an idiot; here's why" or something like "You may be right; I've been wrong before; let's examine the pros and cons of the issue". If more people open their minds and not tie themselves to one "side" or the other, there's a better chance of having an intelligent discussion.

Reduction of the Human Tendency to Only Seek Out Information that Supports your Current Views

As mentioned previously, when you're already firm in your opinions, you're less likely to seek out opposing ideas. Conversely, you're more likely to hang out with people who have similar views and read literature that supports your beliefs. Taking an independent, I-haven't-made-up-my-mind approach encourages us to look at both sides of issue.

Less Chance of a Move to Extremism

The independent approach means less of a chance you'll start on the brainwashing cycle that leads to extremism. How many civil rights leaders examine the detrimental effects of affirmative action? How many environmentalists examine the ways humans have improved the environment? How many Islamic extremists have examined the good things about America (like the trillion dollars it's given out in foreign aid)?

People Are More Open to Change and Finding the Correct Answer

It's unfortunate that in our society, you're almost considered "weak" if you haven't decided on an issue or if you frequently change your mind. It's the kiss of death for a politician to flip-flop on too many issues. Yet, most people inevitably take a stand on an issue before they know all the facts. In the War In Iraq analysis on this website, there are over 10 solid reasons for going to war and over 10 solid reasons for not going to war. A good 20-30 percent of the population has flip-flopped on the issue once more evidence and logical reasoning was discussed. However, the rest of the population remained firmly in the pro-war or anti-war camps. And I'm willing to bet that no matter what level of cooperation Saddam exerted or no matter how much evidence was released that he wasn't cooperating, those same people would remain solidly in their pro-war or anti-war stances. Clearly, the people who don't have allegiance to one side or the other are the most open to finding the correct answer.

Citizens Will Elect the Right Person Rather Than the Right Party

Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt were Democrats. Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln were Republicans. All four of these men are considered among our greatest presidents, and each was probably exactly what we needed during the point in history in which they were elected. Clearly, the party they were affiliated with didn't matter, each was the right person for the job. Conventional wisdom says 30-40 percent of people will vote Democrat no matter who's running and 30-40 percent will vote Republican. If more of us would concentrate on electing the right person for the job rather than the right party, we might begin to have an efficient, harmonious government.

Independents Have More Credibility

An often overlooked advantage of having an independent approach to politics is the increase in credibility. If the issue is President Bush's dividend tax cut, who would have more creditability: a Republican senator, a Democratic senator, or an independent political analyst? One of the things that changed much of public opinion to pro-war, especially in this country, was the change in attitude of Colin Powell. He was the one who pushed Bush to go to the U.N. He was the one who most advocated a peaceful solution to the crisis, and disarmament over regime change. After trying his best to promote inspections and work with the U.N., Powell realized the futility of the actions and joined the pro-war camp. Now, he was taking the exact same position that Rumsfield, Cheney, and Bush had advocated all along. But it took the change of heart in the even-handed, open-minded Powell that finally convinced much of the American public to support a pro-war stance. Think about that credibility issue the next time you examine the facts of an issue.


As we've seen, much of the American public (and the world for that matter) has in effect been brainwashed to a certain way of thinking. Extremism has pervaded the thoughts of environmentalists, communists, anti-war activists, Islamic fundamentalists & other religious fanatics, civil rights leaders, feminists, pro-family traditionalists, and more. There is no easy way to change the minds of these people or bring them back from the extremes. The best we can do is to try to encourage a middle-of-the-road approach, hoping that these people will eventually make the right decisions. And we can prevent others (including ourselves) from becoming extremists in the future.

I'm not saying you should give up your principles or values.  I'm simply saying it pays to get all the facts and reasoning before you come to a conclusion, and it pays to stay open to new evidence that becomes available.  If after analyzing both sides of an issue, you believe one side is stronger than the other, by all means, become a vocal advocate of your position, keeping in mind the good points of the other side.

A society that takes an independent, open-minded view of politics means we can finally begin to solve the problems that continue to plague us. As Albert Einstein said, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

Reply to the Author