Cass Sunstein's Going to Extremes.

Cass Sunstein's Going to Extremes.

Cass Sunstein's Going to Extremes.

Reading between the lines.
June 15 2009 6:52 AM

How on Earth Do You Tame Extremists?

Cass Sunstein tackles an impossible task.

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As long as the reader assumes extremism is always a problem, the solution would seem to involve strengthening diversity so that it doesn't dissolve on contact with pigheadedness. That is Sunstein's idea for terrorism, for instance. "If a nation aims to prevent terrorist activities," he writes, "a good strategy is to prevent the rise of enclaves of like-minded people." But what happens when the enclave is not a bunch of terrorists? What if it is a trade union? A men's club? A women's studies department? Civil rights marchers? Ordinary religious people? Love thy neighbor as thyself and We shall overcome also meet the description of an extremism. They, too, are partial views of the world that tend to be self-reinforcing.

Sunstein acknowledges that there can be good extremists (American revolutionaries) as well as bad ones (Hutu machete men). Once he does, a lot that was bold, simple, and interesting becomes conditional, tangled, and confusing. Sunstein spends the last third of the book unsaying much of what he has written up to that point. "When people are seeking their rights," he writes, "group polarization can be highly desirable." And not just polarization. People also need the possibility of what Sunstein calls "enclave deliberation": shelter from the system to organize against the system.


If Sunstein is on a quest for neutral principles that would trammel bad extremisms and promote good ones—and for much of the book, he seems to be—it is an unfruitful one. He seeks a way out through the work of legal philosopher Heather Gerken, which sounds, in Sunstein's description, like a more fleshed-out and sophisticated analysis of groups in conflict than anything else described in his own book. Gerken distinguishes between first-order diversity (diversity within institutions) and second-order diversity (diversity among institutions). To simplify, the first involves insuring that the newsroom of the Los Angeles Times has a certain number of Latinos; the second involves ensuring that the public can choose between, say, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, and the Final Call. It is OK if certain institutions aren't diverse as long as society has a diversity of institutions.

Gerken's version of diversity would let 100 flowers bloom. It is more compatible with liberty than the first-order vision we currently embrace, which relies on targeted suspensions of the right to freedom of association. It does not, however, get around the problems that Sunstein lays out with such admirable boldness at the start of the book. Because wouldn't this variety of groups, however vast and diverse at the outset, eventually sort itself into two warring camps that would then jaw at each other in mindless mutual contempt? Isn't that, in fact, just what has stunk up American political culture since the rise of the Internet?

Sunstein is torn. The central insight of this book is that deliberation, far from bringing people together, can drive them to extremes. Bien-pensant campaigns of public information and "dialogue" therefore risk doing more harm than good. Sunstein's argument undermines ideals of deliberative democracy, but he refuses to admit that it does. "It suggests only that we need to specify the idea of deliberation, rather than to celebrate it as such," he writes, defensively.

What does "specifying the idea of deliberation" mean? It can only mean reasoning backward—on ethical grounds —from desired conclusions to permissible lines of debate. Sunstein refers to bad extremists as having a "crippled epistemology": They know less than they think they do, and what they know is biased. But, really, the same might be said of Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa. It is not epistemology that separates them from, say, the butchers of Rwanda. It is ethics. As concepts go, "extremism" turns out not to explain all that much. It is a little rivulet running into a vast ocean of right and wrong. The only way to counter the kind of extremism you don't like, whether you are the head of a school board or a state, is to say, "We believe in this and not in that," and hope you are strong enough to prevail—probably, alas, with tactics that are less deliberative than you might have wished.