Radicalism: a strategy used by the power-hungry or a powerful catalyst for change?

Victoria Noya

Ironically, political radicalism is not uncommon. Donald Trump may come to mind, but this relatively new representation of political radicalism in the 21st century is not an isolated case. Many political regimes in the developing world are sustained by extreme ideologies, regarding change from accepted or traditional forms. Ideally, radicalism should act as a catalyst for a new beginning, filled with hope and promise for the future. In reality, radicalism can be, and is, used as a political strategy by the power-hungry.

To begin with, it is important to consider what “radicalism” is. Dictionary definition aside, what is considered radical to some people is completely normal to others. The political grey areas and moral ambiguity that surrounds political radicalism mean that it is very difficult to form a concrete image of how radical a proposed idea truly is. Also, if an idea is radical, what happens? Is it insane to consider a radical idea as a possible solution to a problem? The answer is no. Radicalism seems to be surrounded by negative connotations, but in politics radicalism focuses on changing social structures and altering fundamental values. Indeed, radical views can help people reconsider developmental and political trajectories their country is facing, and while radical solutions may be too extreme and brusque to put into practice, the discourse generated can lead to a better, more sensible solution. Thus the issue with radicalism doesn’t lie in itself, but in how it used by those who preach it.

In practice, radicalism tends to create harsh divisions in society. I use the case of Venezuelan politics as a base in this dialogue. In 1999 the late president Hugo Chavez was elected by the Venezuelan people. At this time, other than standing against the partyocracy before him, Chavez was scarcely radical. But because he represented a drastic change from previous neoliberal regimes, Chavismo began as a movement to break down previous institutional barriers. However, to obtain more support from the people, his discourse became more radical, populist and anti-American. Meanwhile, throughout the course of his precedency, corruption, clientelism and cronyism grew at a parallel rate. As such, “Chavismo” came into full fruition, a movement based on everything Chavez said and all he claims to stand for. Unsurprisingly, it is extremely popular among the poor, who were unswervingly loyal to him, repeating his often obscene and undiplomatic delivery to any who opposed him. The ambivalent groups became easier to convince by the fierce opinions that pulled at them. Thus Chavez steadily kept gaining more supporters, who seemed to be almost oblivious to how the president’s words didn’t match his actions. Those who could tell the disparity would point it out with the same fervor, thus creating a never seen before divide in the Venezuelan people. What is left now after Chavez’s death is an ardent idolization of him by Chavistas, who follow his heir, Maduro; and a fighting chance by opposition supporters who still have hope that someday Chavismo will end.

Radicalism seems to be surrounded by negative connotations, but in politics radicalism focuses on changing social structures and altering fundamental values.

In developing countries and petro states political leaders like Chavez are not uncommon. However, the same cannot be said of the developed world, although there is one that comes to mind. Of course, here I am referring to Donald Trump- who else? Indeed, who else is unapologetically brash and undiplomatic, and despite the radical ideas he bombards, remains increasingly popular? Here is an example of how radical ideas are used to gain majority votes and power- because it is easy to convince someone who is unassuming and unsure using an inflated sense of confidence and security. Whether Trump truly believes in his radical stance, or whether he is just using them to gain power is another question. There is no doubt that in his candidacy, radicalism is his political strategy.