The Power of a Radical Minority – at Home and Abroad

In transformational times, assessing and reassessing one’s basic assumptions is critical for navigating the confusing and dangerous shoals of public and foreign affairs. Like those who perpetually “fight the last war,” far too many people are inclined to view every development through the lens of their own experience. The conflict in Syria and the U.S. government shutdown may be two differing but relevant cases in point.

The United States and Russia may have agreed to a framework for identifying and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, but for all of the difficulties associated with getting rid of this arsenal it is no longer the critical issue it once was in determining the outcome of the conflict. The nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad is. With a Geneva II peace conference in the works, the international community is grappling with the inherent problems of assessing and making progress with a dangerously fractured opposition.

Despite the U.S.-Russian agreement, these two countries have yet to have a full meeting of the minds on the nature of the Syrian opposition and what that means for the outcome of the civil war and the future of the region.

It appears from the outset that the United States has downplayed the growing role of al-Qaeda- linked groups among the anti-Assad opposition. Just last month, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists…Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

Secretary Kerry also suggested that the United States would somehow end up as the power broker were Assad to be ousted — going on to say that this would require a negotiation on who would eventually run Syria.

The Russians have been at best skeptical of American assumptions and at worst shocked by what they might describe as U.S. naiveté. Rightly or wrongly, their take on the what they regard as an opposition riddled with Islamist radicals has led them to support the Syrian government at all costs –as their way of keeping a lid on the growing extremism in that country, and the potential for it to further destabilize the region.

The differences in Russian and American perspectives on this says a lot about the way our respective cultures interpret facts—not surprisingly, largely through the lens of our own historical experiences.

The potential for a minority faction takeover of an opposition movement is is infused in the Russian mind. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the minority Bolshevik faction in the opposition Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party, staged a successful coup in 1917. This power grab marginalized the majority of his party, the Mensheviks, and overturned a nascent parliamentary government in Russia—thus ushering in communism and the establishment of the Soviet Union, which lasted for more than seventy years.

The power of a radical minority, as the Russians well know, garners its strength and capability from its utter devotion to its cause and a willingness to use any means whatsoever to accumulate and ultimately seize power. With such determination, others who are unwilling or unable to be similarly focused and ruthless often have virtually no leverage at the end of the day.

On the U.S. home front we enjoy the blessings of stable government. The prevailing mood of the majority has largely triumphed. But due to continuing standoffs over fiscal matters, many people in America are beginning to wonder if we may have inaccurately analyzed a developing brand of domestic extremism. While they do not necessarily advocate violence, fringe elements on the right and left are extremists nonetheless as they do not accept any form of compromise; they get their energy from the unwavering righteousness of their causes.

At the moment, a faction of the Tea Party movement has provided the “leadership,” albeit one with a radical agenda, to shut down the United States government for the first time in 17 years. Moderates and traditional conservatives, fearful of their political tactics, have only just begun to realize the true danger posed by this dedicated and unyielding group.

Until now moderate Republicans have tolerated this minority in their ranks, assuming that in the end they could control, if not appease, this small faction. But the GOP establishment’s gamble may fail, threatening the party’s prospects for the mid-term elections and possibly damaging its longer term viability. The attention-seeking Senator Ted Cruz and his ilk are not dedicated to defunding the Affordable Care Act as much as they seek to dismantle much of the federal government. It appears that they will stop at nothing short of getting their way, since they have no strategy for ending this stalemate. While it is inconceivable that this minority’s tactics could extend beyond legislative measures, the potential to do catastrophic harm to our economy looms with the coming debt ceiling negotiations.

While the situation in Syria and the United States are in no way contextually similar, there is at least one lesson we can learn from what is now unfolding. Our collective experience of “majority rules” is the lens through which the United States often reflexively evaluates developments – at home and abroad. In the 20th century our system largely shielded us from political and sectarian violence. Even with a fortunate history, however, we are living in a fast-moving era that requires us to keep an open mind – constantly reevaluating the true nature of what is really happening. The United States should not underestimate people who have a fanatical passion to prevail – not overseas, and apparently not even in the halls of Congress.

8 thoughts on “The Power of a Radical Minority – at Home and Abroad

  1. Susan, WOW! What multifaceted wisdom! Sorry to have missed U @Gbg MOH recipients celebrations, unfortunately OOT. Sounds like an absolutely incredible event. Regarding the “Ted Cruz” GOP moment, “Taking care of one’s life, self actualization, health care for all, etc” has been the GOP MANTRA forever!! In fact, 1)concept of universal health care &, 2) ” individual mandate” concept spawned by the HERITAGE foundation right-wing Conservative think-tank that NO-ONE even B.O. is willing to expose. The rank hypocrisy of one Ted Cruz(Tea-Party goon) & the House Republicans who voted “Obamacare” INTO LAW is really the theatre of the absurd! My gut, as a centrist Democrat, to be painfully “honest” about all of this,(and I really hope I’m short-sighted, the GOP/Tea Party hard-core do not hate the Affordable Care Act as much as they UNIVERSALLY despise the “Kenyan” in the White House who signed it into law!!!

  2. Susan,
    Your commentary articulates and surfaces my deepest fears for our country’s course. History does repeat itself. I fear the barbarians are now inside the gates…they were voted in and will not be easily voted out. At stake is our way of life guided by the Constitution which lives only by the will of a civilized people. In order for “we the people” to expect a fixed government we must first fix ourselves.

    I have shared your commentary on Facebook hoping it will spread to sober foggy minds.

  3. You have clearly pointed out that a dedicated, “fanatical” minority can over come and marginalize majority “rule” and wishes. Syria is much more complicated and no matter who “wins”, whatever that means, the next “tomorrow” is very uncertain. The situation in the U.S. is much simpler and straight forward.
    Our history, experience and practice is to protect and defend against tyranny of the MAJORITY, and we have been very successful. But how to handle tyranny of MINORITY, within the framework of our laws has always been difficult, but never more so than now. Even the minority of minority, dedicated and to some extent amoral, who just want the other side (ie: the USG and most Americans) to LOSE.
    Thanks for bringing these two current situations together.

  4. This is an extraordinarily insightful analysis in few words of the two greatest present
    crises for the United States. Anyone reading this article would do fellow citizens a great
    service by distributing it as widely as possible. The analysis is a wake-up call that we
    urgently need. Communism in Russia and Nazism in Germany both began with small groups of extremists believing:in the legitimacy of any means to gain their objectives. One of the means used with effectiveness was de facto sabotage of the functioning of democratic governments.

  5. EXCELLENT !!! Razor sharp -20/20 vision Susan (as always)…Seems as though there are distractions everywhere. They were beating the drums of WAR again ever so loudly…hmmmm… Recently, it seems we had plenty of money to jump-start another rush to judgement- FALSE WAR…then suddenly…whoosh…the “THEATER” changed… Simply Disgusting that we have to sit back and observe such dis-functionality. So demeaning to TRUTH, JUSTICE, and GOVERNING. The real TRUTH… is they want to PRIVATIZE Medicare (their Corporate Masters are waiting in the wings) and get the XL Pipeline..that way, since we are currently not at War… their pet Corporations (we all know who and what they are) can still make their hundreds of Billions of $$$$$…The Affordable Care Act is a cheap theatrics diversion for the America people. I may have misjudged the Republicans, they may yet go down in history as the Greatest Illusionists in the World…although, they couldn’t even qualify for America’s Got Talent….Thank you Susan, as always, for being WHO you ARE and for always sharing such grounding narratives…(and thank you for allowing me to vent) You are so Wonderful ! (don’t we all wish Ike was here…) 🙂

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