Milner Library Site Voices of Extremism

Voices of Extremism: Conflicting Ideologies in United States Politics in the Decades Following WWII: 1948-1980

Why should we be concerned about extremist movements in the United States?

Although movements of extremism, from both the far left and the far right, have been present in U.S. history since our country's founding, developments in technologies of communication and mass media as well as America's increasing exposure to events occurring elsewhere in the world have led to a long-term increase in both the numbers of extremist movements and the numbers of people actively involved in those movements.

More recently, extremism appears to have been abetted by changing ethnic demographics in our society, particularly the rapid increase in the number of Hispanic immigrants, the strains of economic recession, the election, for the first time, of a Black person to the presidency of the United States, the extreme polarization of American politics with the resulting breakdown of dialogue particularly in the U.S. Congress, and, I would add, the declining performance of American education, resulting in, now, fully two generations of voting-age citizens largely un-conversant, and often uninterested, in regard to matters of public importance and, therefore, frighteningly receptive to the messages of an increasing number of demagogues broadcasting their venomous tirades on the public airways.

The Intelligence Report, a quarterly publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center that provides comprehensive updates on extremist activity to law enforcement agencies, the media, and the general public, reports in its Spring 2011 issue that the number of active extremist groups in the United States has expanded "dramatically for the second year in a row," reaching in 2010 a record high (since the SPLC started counting in the 1980s) of 2,145. Currently the vast majority of these groups are on the far right, consisting mainly of what SPLC refers to as (1) the "hatemongers," (2) the "nativists," and (3) the "antigovernment zealots." SPLC calculates the total number of "hatemonger" groups at 1,002 and breaks that number down into eight categories: the Ku Klux Klan (221 groups), Neo-Nazi groups (170), White Nationalist groups (136), Racist Skinhead groups (136), Christian Identity groups (26), Black Separatist groups (149), Neo-Confederate groups (42), and General Hate groups (122). According to SPLC's figures, the remaining number of extremist groups, some 1,143, is shared by the "nativists" and the "antigovernment zealots."

Of course, the number of extremist organizations does not, in itself, indicate the number of members or activists who identify with these groups, and the veil of secrecy behind which most of these organizations operate often makes it difficult to ascertain precise membership numbers. Yet, it is obvious that many of these groups, despite the enormous publicity they generate, have relatively few members. For example, the American Nazi Party, at the peak of its post-World-War-Two membership in the 1970s and 1980s, appears (from Post Office records of its bulk mailings) to have never numbered more than approximately one hundred members, and even this membership of largely teenagers has been characterized, throughout the post-war history of the American Nazi Party, by continuous and rapid turnover.

Still, we live in an age when it has become frighteningly obvious that a very few -- even a single -- suicide bomber can wreak enormous damage and murder thousands of people, as we were reminded on September 11, 2001, when a relative few fanatics were able to commandeer simultaneously four commercial airplanes and thereby bring massive death and destruction. Further, one can reliably conclude, without precise numbers that, at the end of the opening decade of the twenty-first century the cumulative membership in extremist organizations and movements is high, and with the addition of such movements as the Tea Party, whose membership appears to represent a mix of extremists and also those perhaps more accurately designated as politically "irresponsible," we have such large number of followers as are sufficient to disrupt election results and thereby endanger, as we have witnessed, responsible dialogue in American politics at the local, state, and even national level of politics.

This, alone, should be sufficient to answer the question we posed of why we should be concerned. But I would add one other reason we should be knowledgeable about the extremists in our midst. As I have argued in my book, Extremism and Cognition: Styles of Irresponsibility in American Society (Kendall/Hunt, 1971), by studying not just the message-content of what extremists have had to say but, even more importantly, the highly irresponsible styles of their thinking and expression -- by which I mean their proclivities toward (1) oversimplification of complex issues, (2) inflexible and narrow preconceptions by which they perceive and interpret the world, (3) and exposing themselves only to people and sources of information that already are in agreement with their views -- we are provided with an invaluable opportunity to observe in an exaggerated, and therefore clear and hopefully instructive, form the kind of irresponsible thinking and expressions that all of us tend, although to a lesser degree, in moments of pressure (think of the road rage you may experience when a driver cuts dangerously close in front of you, or when you lose your job in the midst of trying desperately to make your house payments, or simply when you hit your thumb with a hammer!) to engage in. In other words, we -- as responsible citizens -- can learn from extremists how to be even more responsible citizens.

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