Miller Center

Colloquium - Extremism and American Political Thought

Joel Olson
December 4, 2009
12:30PM - 2:00PM (EST)

Joel Olson
Joel Olson

This paper examines the use of the American jeremiad in the abolitionist and anti-abortion movements in the U.S. The American jeremiad is the lament, ubiquitous in political thought and culture in the U.S., that Americans are a chosen people who have failed to fulfill their calling, yet can still redeem themselves by returning to their moral and intellectual roots. Fanatics such as the abolitionist John Brown and anti-abortion activists Randall Terry, Paul Hill, and Scott Roeder embrace the structure and exceptionalism of the American jeremiad but, in contrast to political moderates, they insist on achieving the utopian ideals of the American jeremiad (unconditional emancipation, the outlawing of abortion) immediately rather than in the distant future. This leads them to reject political moderation and to embrace an extremist approach to politics.

Joel Olson is Associate Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Olson teaches courses on the history of political thought, American political thought, critical race theory, and extremism. He is the author of The Abolition of White Democracy (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) and several articles on the relationship between race and democracy in the United States. He is currently writing a book, American Zealot, that examines the role of fanaticism in the American political tradition.

This colloquium is part of the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics’ American Political Thought: Institutions and Values Series.

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