Who are you calling an extremist?

Published May 18, 2023

By John Hood

If you’ve engaged in political activity or debate for longer than, say, a week, chances are someone thinks you’re an extremist. If your activity occurs or draws attention on social media, chances are someone has called you an extremist.

And guess what: you probably are!

Very few individuals hold only views shared by a large majority of other people. Human beings are more complicated — and interesting — than that. You may have “mainstream” views on economic matters, for example, but take a decidedly minority position on abortion. Or you might mix popular views on gun control with unpopular views on foreign policy. By someone’s definition, you might well be an extremist.

In recent weeks, left-wing activists have been hurling the “extremist” accusation at the Republicans who hold majorities in North Carolina’s General Assembly, Council of State, appellate courts, and county governments.

I hope these activists don’t slip on the glass stairs of their glass houses. For example, most favor the continued use of race-conscious admissions at the University of North Carolina and other institutions of higher education. This is a deeply unpopular position. A 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 74% of Americans — including 68% of Hispanics, 63% of Asians, and 59% of African-Americans — oppose any use of race or ethnicity in college admissions.

About a quarter of Americans, in other words, take UNC’s side in its years-long legal dispute with Students for Fair Admissions. Does that make them extremists? You be the judge, though soon we can just call them disappointed. The U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to declare an end to racial discrimination in admissions.

About the same percentage of North Carolinians oppose a requirement that citizens present photo IDs in order to vote. They argue ID requirements represent a significant and racially biased impediment to electoral participation. I think the critics are mistaken, for reasons I’ve explained many times over the years. Most North Carolinians agree. Two-thirds or more express support for voter ID, depending on how the question is worded, and a solid majority voted in 2018 to add the requirement to the state constitution.

How about parental choice in education? Measures to expand North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship program and streamline the approval of new charter schools have attracted bitter scorn from the left. But which are the mainstream and extreme positions here? Parental choice is broadly popular. In a Civitas Poll earlier this year, only 22% of North Carolina voters said they were opposed to Opportunity Scholarships and charter schools.

Finally, progressives say it would be “extreme” for the General Assembly to prohibit the use of surgery, hormones, or puberty-blockers to treat gender dysphoria in children, or to protect biological females from having to compete against transgender females in sports. Whatever you think of these measures, they reflect the majority view. A recent Washington Post poll found that 68% of Americans oppose access to puberty-blocking drugs for children ages 10-14 and 58% oppose access to hormonal treatments for those aged 15 to 17. Most also take the side of biological girls and women who say allowing biological males into their sports is unfair and potentially dangerous.

I wouldn’t have spent most of my life in opinion journalism if I thought political issues can or should be settled simply by taking polls. Arguments matter! Opinions change! Plenty of noxious views were once mainstream but are now relegated to the fringe, thank goodness. Similarly, much good has come from a few lonely dissenters — be they in business, science, art, or politics — who braved public scorn only to be proved right later on.

What I object to is the modern impulse to label as “extreme” an opinion merely because it differs from your own. It devalues the meaning of the term. It removes the sting. There really are political extremists who deserve our scorn, those who resort to violence and intimidation rather than following the rules of democratic discourse. Let’s reserve the label for them.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.