Extremist political groups tend to lack staying power

August 13, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

A new "conservative populist" party, popularly called the tea party, has made a showy entrance onto the political scene.

Political pundits and newscasters are generous with their exposure to the public. The larger question raised by those who have a sense of history is whether this "new kid on the block" is for real or only a "flash in the pan." How many apparently viable protest groups have bitten the dust after a few years of attracting large followings?

We can get some idea of the answer to these questions by reading the large (547 pages) volume authored by two skilled social analysts, Seymour M. Lipset and Earl Raab. In "The Politics Of Unreason: Right Wing Extremism In America, 1790-1970," we get a 180-year perspective of aspiring social movements. Many of these groups are unknown to others except students of the subject, but it is now evident that right-wing protest extremists are as old as the republic. How will the tea party fare in the long run?


The authors are not concerned with extreme left wing or mainstream protest groups. They would require further study as separate topics. The authors wish to identify the core values and traits that recur in a long view of extremist movements. While these core beliefs might vary in relative importance from one group to another, there are common traits that are shared.

Extremist groups attract "true believer" types who have very strong moral beliefs about what is right or wrong that frequently end up as absolutes. They have a propensity for all kinds of conspiracy theories to explain social events. A recurring culprit behind undesirable events is the mysterious Illuminati who have been dissolved since 1785.

Crucial to understanding right-wing protest groups is to recognize that they do not accept the proposition of a pluralistic society with its support of differences as the norm. Openness, diversity, dissent and a free market of ideas are also absent from their agenda. Right-wing theorists prefer simplistic (read, overly simplistic) explanations for the world's problems and tend to reduce all issues to battles between light (good) and darkness (evil).

Members of these movements are activated to join protest groups during times of serious social changes and the concomitant stress. Loss of status and power, and with it the sense of powerlessness, gives impetus to organizing to regain these lost values. It is understandable, then, why they are alarmed at the steady increase in the size of government. Big government is their Bete Noire.

Before the Civil War, there were conspiracy advocates who were alarmed at the increase of anti-Christians, Freemasons and Illuminati who were charged with plotting to destroy religion and order. Into this mix of anxieties was the fear of being overrun by immigrants such as the Irish. This resulted in the growth of native American parties such as the Know Nothings, which were largely made up of working-class people concerned about the loss of jobs.

After the Civil War, several radical organizations grew in power and influence. The American Protective Association was largely an anti-Catholic organization formed to fight the power of the Catholic Church in politics. Also prominent was the Ku Klux Klan with its program to maintain white supremacy. Of interest was the short-lived attempt to persuade Henry Ford to be a candidate for the presidency because of his well-known anti-Semitic views.

Another radical group to make the move toward widespread acceptance was the religious fundamentalists known for their 1925 attempt to forbid the teaching of evolution in the public schools. After a period of decline, they again experienced resurgence with the formation of the Moral Majority by the Rev. Jerry Falwell in the 1950s.

As indicated, extremist groups have mixed goals, ideologies and styles. McCarthyism never achieved the status of a coherent political movement. Led by a certified demagogue, U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a blend of hysterical anti-communism and character assassination was served up to advance his political success. His censure by the Senate brought an end to McCarthyism - now a synonym for ruthless political hardball.

This very brief selection of radical movements will end with a once-flourishing, but now toothless, purveyor of nonsense - the John Birch Society. Founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer, this movement became the dispenser of a strange concoction of anti-government rhetoric, conspiracy theory, nativist bigotry, anti-Semitism and distorted history. It is little wonder that this group is in decline.

Extremist groups blossom in times of stress and change. Their life span is usually brief. They attract those who need security and a reaffirmation of their former status. Many members have limited education, but some groups offer satisfaction to idealists of a higher order.

Nonetheless, the life span of right-wing extremist organizations is likely to be brief. The tea party enthusiasts might want to keep this in mind.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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