New Year, New Hope in the Battle Against Extremism

There’s no shortage of terms used to describe the zero-sum, burn-it-all-down movement toward chaos politics that has hijacked the GOP in recent years. Illiberal. Anti-democracy. Authoritarian. White Nationalist. Populist. Fascist. Far Right. Alt Right. Ultra MAGA. With such a shape-shifting movement, who could pin it down with just one phrase? 

But unlike the movement, the inability to define it is somewhat easier to understand. Perhaps it’s because it isn’t based on any coherent or credible ideology. Instead, it’s built around a blatant and shameless rejection of the hallowed American values — tolerance, cooperation, and compromise — necessary for a pluralistic society to function. In short, it’s about extremism for extremism’s sake.

To be fair, extremism has no party preference. In the 20th century alone, far-left and far-right extremist movements proved they are equally capable of inflicting untold misery on millions. We’ve seen how extremism on one side drives it on the other, in a cutthroat, self-destructive race to the bottom. But whenever and wherever it originates, extremism is always the problem, exploiting and exacerbating social divisions, and creating an atmosphere of distrust and disrespect. Extremism thrives on dysfunction, using it as a tactic, rather than recognizing it as a challenge to overcome. And that’s in the best-case scenario.

American exceptionalism doesn’t exempt us from the scourge of extremism. There was a time when extremists were quickly dispatched by American voters in primary elections, if they even got that far. After all, political parties typically tried to block train-wreck candidates from even appearing on the ballot. But those days are long gone. If any lingering doubts remained, the Speaker of the House debacle dispelled them. To earn the gavel, it took Kevin McCarthy 15 rounds of voting — 15! — and a slew of concessions to a small group of extremists who held the chamber hostage for four days. That’s not how democracy—especially American democracy—is supposed to work. 

The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol wasn’t how American democracy works either. Not long ago, it would have been a bridge too far. Our elected leaders in both parties would have been united in condemnation and a desire to prevent another attack. Instead, we saw the majority of GOP officials twist themselves into pretzel-shaped rationalisations and excuses. Respected leaders like Liz Cheney were ousted for speaking out against the extremism that lit the match on Jan. 6, while election deniers were given plum roles in party leadership. 

That disgraceful event, and the unrelenting desire to prevent more violence, inspired Center Street. Center Street was founded as an antidote to the extremism hell-bent on destroying our democracy. In this new year, two years after Jan. 6 and less than a year after Center Street’s launch, there is fresh hope. You’ve helped us make a real difference. 

After watching prominent extremists lose in key midterm races, trend lines suggest parts of the Republican Party are waking up to the damage its extremist-courting has wrought. You just have to expand your scope beyond Washington, D.C., to find them…

Arizona. Some Republicans in the Copper State are sick of losing elections with extremist candidates like Kari Lake and Blake Masters. They’ve formed a coalition with Democrats called Save Democracy Arizona to stamp out extremism. The group aims to  put a question on the 2024 ballot that would open the state’s primaries, allowing voters to cast their ballots for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation. Open primaries could provide the balance we desperately need.

New York. Republican officials in Nassau Co., N.Y., as well as at the state level, said ‘enough is enough’ to embattled Rep. George Santos, calling on him to resign from his post. Though the groups supported Santos in his bid for office, recent allegations that he fabricated his resume and violated campaign finance laws have caused them to change their minds rather than double-down on their support. “He’s disgraced the House of Representatives, and we do not consider him one of our congresspeople,” Nassau Co. GOP Chair Joseph Cairo said this week.

Ohio. In an unexpected upset, moderate Republican Rep. Jason Stephens, with the help of members of the Democratic Party, has been elected Speaker of the Ohio House, wresting the coveted role from a far-right lawmaker who was already elected in a non-official party vote. Stephens pledged to stop far-right policies and act as a full moderate, as he becomes one of the most significant and influential leaders in the state.

Pennsylvania. A deadlock in the Pennsylvania State House speakership election was broken last week when seven members of GOP leadership and nine others in the Republican caucus joined Democrats to elect Democratic State Rep. Mark Rozzi as Speaker. Rozzi has promised to govern as an independent in the narrowly divided House. 

In other words, we’ve gained real ground in the war  against extremism, thanks to some politicians with backbone and the discerning American voters who empowered them. But quitting now would be like the Minutemen calling it a day after Lexington and Concord. Our fight today—for the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans—is radically different than theirs. But it’s no less important if our aim is to keep the dream of our colonial forebears alive and well in our time.

Our mission in 2023—and beyond—is to build on these small but promising victories, championing the leaders on the front lines of democracy and rallying troops to their side. We believe that for every problem, there’s a solution. As insidious and persistent as it is, extremism is no different. It just takes good people willing to stand up to it and the resources to support them. At Center Street, we’re grateful to be part of the coalition of pro-democracy, pro-governance organizations and individuals like you standing alongside us in the fight.