How to Define Extremism

Tepker, Rick rtepker at
Thu Nov 3 06:19:38 PST 2005

My memory of events dims, but I recall the controversy over Senator
Goldwater's acceptance speech:  "Extremism in the defense of liberty is
no vice; and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." 


The controversy coincided with the post-assasination 'liberal' consensus
that focused on various forms of irrational extremism:  McCarthyism, the
Birch Society, the KKK.  Goldwater's remarks were all too easily
caricatured as a bow in the direction toward those extremist groups.  It
was an unfair caricature, as I think all now know.  But it paid
political dividends.


I would prefer if we reserved the word 'extremist' for those
individuals, groups and organizations who reject the fundamentals of the
existing political and constitutional order.  Perhaps Hofstader's books
on the "anti-intellectual" and "paranoid" elements of American politics
would help fill that idea out.


But I deny that Bork, Ginsburg, Alito, Scalia, Thomas, Brennan or
Marshall - the usual targets of the more ideological on our lists - can
be deemed to be extremist.  They all represent - with varying emphasis
and priorities - judges in the 'mainstream.'  All are committed to the
basic principles of our constitutional order.


I'm inclined to think that of these, Thomas represents the most
'radical' (using Professor Sunstein's terminology) because he would urge
the greatest amount of change - a "radical" rewrite of existing
constitutional doctrine to reflect "original" understandings.  But even
that view can hardly be called extremist:  wouldn't a better word be
"Jeffersonian" in its emphasis on democracy, federalism and reserving
judicial power to the explicit limitations on political branches?


My thesis is simple:  As many have suggested, the term "extremist" has
lost its meaning.  It is a pejorative term, but not particularly
descriptive or useful.


To the extent that liberals and Democrats will be arguing that Alito is
'too extremist,' they are groping toward a formulation of argument that
may pay short-term political dividends (just like the attacks on
Goldwater), but only at the 'extremely' high price of diminished public
confidence in the Supreme Court, the Constitution and the
political-legal discourse.



Rick Tepker

Calvert Chair of Law and Liberty

  & Professor of Law

University of Oklahoma

Norman, Oklahoma




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