America has always had its share of radicals, including the people who founded the country in 1776. Maine had a large anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish Ku Klux Klan presence a hundred years ago, a few extreme leftists in the 1960s and 1970s and, most recently, some elements of the tea party on the right.

But we haven’t had so many extremists in positions of power since the dark days just before the Civil War.

All of which has gotten me to wonder if we haven’t become too complacent about the danger of extremism. Changes in American politics over the last two decades — most notably the embrace of extreme views in the mainstream of political dialogue — may well be today’s greatest threat to our form of government, and our way of life.

For many people, politics has turned into a free-fire zone awash in money and hired mercenaries. A world of crazy uncles who make spectacles of themselves. We try to shrug it off, as best we can, but at some point it becomes hard to ignore.

This week we learned that the drift toward extremism in Maine may have moved from the damaging to the dangerous. Gov. Paul LePage has been meeting with members of a group that espouses extremist and paranoid views about a coming genocide of Christians and a takeover of America by the one-world advocates and others.

These delusions are the latest version of the “black helicopters” scares of past decades, where people imagined that the federal government cared enough about their rantings to actually be watching them.

In this new version, we’re apparently all going to be stripped of our guns, presumably by an alliance of the United Nations, liberals, atheists, communists, blacks, gays, illegal aliens and uppity women. Then we’ll all be shipped off to labor camps to stare up at looming smoke stacks that signal our end.

We learned about these meetings thanks to the probing work of Mike Tipping, a columnist in the Portland Press Herald, who works for the Maine People’s Alliance. (While Tipping and I don’t always agree, the paper’s lucky to have him).

What were LePage and this group talking about? Oh, you know, standard stuff like the need to lynch elected Democrats that they disagree with, and thereby protect the Constitution by ignoring it.

LePage defended the meetings by saying that he meets with hundreds of people all the time, and that doesn’t mean he agrees with them. All well and good, if he’d met with them once. But eight times? How could LePage spend so much time with a group of crazies and not see it? One explanation is that crazy doesn’t always recognize crazy very well, and that these meetings tell us more about the governor than the group he met with.

Anyone who has been involved in grassroots politics, as I have been for four decades, will by necessity find themselves dealing with some pretty flaky people on both the right or left. That’s to be expected. In my early 20s, I was a young idealist surrounded by people calling for big change. Over time, some of them became so extreme that they threatened harm to anyone who spoke out against them, as I did.

Even though I was young and inexperienced, I still could recognize crazy when it sat across the table from me. But what’s LePage’s excuse, as a grown man and the governor of this state?

All of this reflects a disturbing trend in America, captured in a recent Pew poll that shows the country dividing along ideological lines. Americans who call themselves either liberal or conservative have doubled in 20 years, with a chasm growing between them and extremes growing at the fringe of both parties, but particularly among Republicans.

The number of Republicans who despise Democrats has tripled, while Democratic revulsion toward Republicans has more than doubled. Among both of those groups, the vast majority says the other party is a threat to the country, which of course justifies any action.

About two-thirds of Republicans and half of Democrats now live in a new kind of ideological subculture where they interact primarily with people who agree with them. Republicans are becoming more rural and Democrats more urban and ideologues in both parties have become their most vocal elements.

All of which has brought us to this: Roughly 60 percent of both conservatives and liberals now define the word “compromise” as meaning that they get more of what they want.

Perhaps it’s time for people to stand up and speak out, not against any political party but against extremism itself.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]

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