I have a tendency to get bogged down in semantics; to split hairs over what words mean, how they’re used, and what they really describe. It’s often quite difficult to express to others why, exactly, I find parsing their meanings so crucial. Occasionally, however, I stumble into a situation that illustrates the importance of exactly that endeavor. As it happens, this week I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about “radicalism” or advocating for something “radical,” and what it means to use that word.
In the most recent episode of his podcast “The Good Fight,” Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk interviewed E.J. Dionne about authoritarian populism and Dionne’s new book on its current American iteration. I’ve already spoken about one aspect of it, but another point of interest came toward the end of the interview where Dionne discussed what he thought were potential solutions to our current populist quagmire. One of those solutions, Mounk describes as follows:
“One thing you talk about is a form of inclusive patriotism [...] Your idea, roughly speaking, is that we need to reemphasize a form of patriotism that unites us beyond racial and ethnic lines and draws on a long civic tradition in order to counter the far-right’s interpretation of what it is to be an American. In order to counter ethno-nationalist ideas of what it is to be an American.”
I almost immediately, in the middle of the office with my headphones in, muttered; “pretty radical concept, fellas.”
The phrase slipped out laden with sarcasm, but the word “radical” stuck in my mind as it so often does lately. It hung there as Mounk and Dionne batted their idea around; Mounk skeptical of its resilience, and Dionne cautiously optimistic. As they spoke, and as I thought about it, the word “radical” began to seem increasingly appropriate.
The word radical is most often defined in politics corresponding to one of its dictionary definitions: “advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social change; representing or supporting an extreme or progressive section of a political party.” We focus almost exclusively on the latter half of the definition. Extreme, irrational, impractical, dangerous. But the other definitions of the word focus far more attention on elaborating upon the former:
(Especially of change or action) relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching or thorough. Forming an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of someone or something. Characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive.
Our idea of “patriotism” has almost always been deeply stained by ethno-nationalism and racism. For centuries Black Americans were stripped completely of their sense of national belonging. Immigrants have almost always been regarded as un-American based on whatever identifiable characteristics distinguished them; last name, hair color, accent, skin tone, native language, or religion.
When I consider our fraught history of nativism and racism, the idea of an “inclusive patriotism” that transcends race and ethnicity starts to sound revolutionary. It is. The idea of inclusive patriotism would require a total departure from our tradition; a complete revolution in what we considered to be American in almost every era of our past. An inclusive American patriotism that transcends race and ethnicity is absolutely radical.
When viewed through this lens, numerous progressive goals start to feel like their own sorts of radicalism. Social democracy, universal basic income, full employment, universal health care, ending the wealth gap, educating all children to be citizens. To advocate any one – let alone several or all – is to advocate for change of a fundamental nature. Not just policy changes but complete reversals in decades or centuries of thinking. To advocate any one is to advocate something radical.
This is not a bad thing. In fact, recognizing the radical nature of some standard fare progressive goals is crucially important to realizing them. Beyond the tactical benefit of being able to position oneself on the vanguard of things, a radical idea demands energy. A radical idea requires organization, focus, persuasion, argument, excitement, emotional investment, and, perhaps most importantly, time. When an idea reveals itself as radical it demands our every effort. If we acknowledge its radicalism, and truly care about it, then we oblige.
This is why words are important. This is why describing our ideas matters. Applying a different word to our goal can breathe into it life and vibrancy. Our words and our political language have an immediate and profound impact on how we act. Words beget action. Effective words beget effective action.