What are Radical Politics?

Radical Politics
Black bloc protesters parading anarcho-communism imagery such as the motto “No War but the Class War.” Photo by Jake Mohan.

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What are Radical Politics?

The polarization of American politics has brought about a paradigm shift in the meaning of what we call radical politics. Typically, people think of radical politics as shorthand for political extremism. However, extremists focus on policies, while radicals challenge institutions themselves. Of course, many political extremists are radicals. Moreover, they can also reinforce each other. Extremists often adopt radical tactics to pursue their political agendas. Still, extremists are not always radicals and radicals are not always extremists.

Radicals seek to tear down institutions. Abolitionists sought to eliminate the institution of slavery. The French Revolutionaries sought to end the monarchy. Communists wanted to abolish private property. Unlike reformers, radicals do not simply want to improve institutions. They want to remove one or more institutions from society entirely. Moreover, they aim to fundamentally change society through the abolition or elimination of institutions.

Sometimes radical change is positive and even necessary for human progress, however radicals often adopt extraconstitutional tactics to accomplish their ends. Many radicals break the law and even resort to violence. Perhaps the best example are anarchists who have used terrorist tactics in a futile effort to overthrow the state. Many abolitionists ignored federal laws to help fugitives escape slavery. Even the civil rights movement practiced civil disobedience to bring an end to the institution of segregation in the South.

Radical politics always threatens the existing social order. In authoritarian states it threatens dictators. But in liberal democracies it can threaten democracy itself. Indeed, radical politics often breeds intolerance. Many illiberal political ideologies such as jihadism and fascism readily embrace radicalization. Democracies, of course, generally rely on reform and negotiation. Still, some radicals like Martin Luther King do believe in democracy. But they had to show restraint and limit their objectives. Nonetheless, it shows sometimes radical politics can foster democratization.

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