Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tea Parties, Oath Keepers, and the Radicalization of the Right

The Tea Party movement's radicalization is continuing to organize itself evermore around Oath Keepers, Glen Beck, and the memory of Waco and Ruby Ridge. That's the story from this morning's The New York Times. The Times writer weaves in the narratives of everyday, middle class people awakening to the conspiracy theories of Beck and Adam Jones (of infowars) through their participation in their local Tea Parties. More editorially, the writer focuses on these newly radicalized groups in Western Washington/Idaho where Ruby Ridge took place and Waco, Texas; among other locales. In September, I wrote a post about this reemergence arguing that, while the election this Fall will be about the energy of the Tea Party, the power and actions of the militant right will largely continue until a Republican victory or another Oklahoma City. While I don't mean to rehash that line of thought, I wanted to revise it in lieu of the movement's current state and add to it a sociological approach to why people radicalize.

First of all, the article nicely exemplifies why some of the common misunderstandings of radicalism are untrue. Radical right-wingers are not all Nazi skinheads or poor rural folks who cling to their guns. While some are, the majority of radicals (this goes for Islamic Terrorists and almost all early movement activists) are from the mainstream middle class. Second, they are not ignorant. While I would argue that many are not long-time political aficionados, they are not the uneducated masses. Third, though they are almost always white in America, this does not automatically imply a racist ideology. Again, in this case, there is a distinction between the ever-present white supremacist groups and the currently ascendant radical right. Yes, there is overlap and, even in this version, a militant anti-immigrant ideology. However, particularly as the movement grows, it will mainstream itself more on anti-government rhetoric than an anti-immigrant platform. That said, why are so many decently educated, relatively economically stable people radicalized by Beck, Jones, and stories of Ruby Ridge?

The only difference between a cult or extremist ideology in their early stages and mainstream liberalism is in ideological degrees. As the Times writer well points out, these people are "awakening" to the radical discourse. It's not that they wake up one day and say, "the government is out to get us." They attend Tea Party meetings, start listening to Glen Beck, and reading infowars. People don't watch one show and say, "death to the fascists." Individuals pick up little pieces here and there from the repertoire of pre-made ideologies and start to build a new world-view. As they start to lend credence to this world-view, they continue to attend meetings and protests and get networked into the more mainstream Tea Party world and find like-minded radicals. Both continue to be a source of both ideological hardening and emotional elaboration which entrench the world-view and shape members into radical activists. Radicals find radicals and then seek converts both directly and indirectly. This emergence then causes the ideology to evolve both for participants and the collective. It is this evolution into hostile separatism that distinguishes the ideology.

This is the process that has been going on since I last wrote in September and the result is a more developed infrastructure of radical organizations linking Tea Party groups, Oath Keepers, Beck's 9/12 groups, the John Birch Society, and Friends of Liberty. It is this organizational embeddedness which is changing the nature of the game. Organizations do much better at surviving in a movement than any individual and can continue to recruit and mobilize supporters even when the political tide ebbs. The Oath Keepers could very well survive a member blowing up a federal building. On the other hand, movement maturation, organizational institutionalization, and political success all tend lead to ideological moderation. Except in the few cases when they don't. In those cases, the movement changes the definition of "mainstream," usurps political control, or gains a dedicated political following which defines a new niche.

These then are my adjusted predictions for the movement. If the movement splinters republicans and democrats maintain control or republicans they don't like win, the movement could become tactically hostile. If there is going to be another Oklahoma City, it would probably be in 2011. Nothing mobilizes radicalism like political inefficacy. If the movement wins in 2010, it will become a more hardened political force. While there's a chance it could fizzle out as grassroots often do after a victory, the extent of grassroots organizations lends me to believe it will not. Also, if their victory does not lead to progress they like, that would further the movement's mobilization and re-energize radicalism. In either instance, the movement does not presage a fortuitous future for this country.

Given what I feel is a need to unwind this movement for our safety, it seems necessary to offer the "policy implications" that good sociologists ought to draw. First, mainstream political voices (particularly Fox News) must denounce any act of violence and any legitimation of violence as they occur. Even mainstream politicians and media outlets have the ability to "wake members up" from their extremism and research has shown that public disavowal reduces support for violence.

Second, any act of state repression, as exemplified by Ruby Ridge and Waco, will surely exacerbate the movement's radical wing. Given that Homeland Security is already monitoring the movement, the best policing strategy is to target the most egregious violations, be immediately open with charges and disconnect them from movement ideologies ("she was a bad apple"), and pursue any arrest in public places (where a protracted arrest process like a hostage situation or Ruby Ridge self-containment is least likely).

Third, the greatest counterbalance to this movement would be a counter-movement. Unfortunately, the left's biggest grassroots organizations are either mainstream or professionally linked in to the mainstream. The radical right's mistrust of ACORN is Exhibit A. However, to unwind the dangerous grassroots organizations requires alternative organizations with more civil ideologies that can absorb the radicals. The ideal counter-movement is indeed the Tea Party itself. If the Tea Party were to take responsibility for it's connections to and role in fomenting radical extremists and make an explicit attempt to bring them into the fold, the radicalism would be quickly exchanged for broader political power.


Ragoth said...

Thank you again, Jason, for your excellent summary and take on the whole movement. I certainly hope that they may begin to mainstream eventually, but who knows. With Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, and hell, the CPAC speeches...there doesn't seem to be much push from the de facto leaders of the movement to step away from radical ideology.

Most disturbing, to my mind, is probably Glenn Beck, who seems to be constantly insinuating the need for radical, i.e. violent, reaction to the administration and so called "leftists" or progressives. I'm not sure if he just doesn't have access to a dictionary and is an idiot, or was purposefully malicious about it, but he drummed up a lot of fear describing Canada's discussion on a potential euthanasia policy. He wove a story that confused euthanasia with eugenics and claimed that Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were all a part of the progressive ideology and it was only the good conservatives who saved America from plunging into the depths of eugenic nightmares. Of course, besides being factually inaccurate, he stirred up a lot of fear. A lady called in to say that she was out of work due to injury and that she was afraid that the progressives were going to try to put her to death since she was not "contributing" to the work force. At this point Beck became very careful to say that that sort of thing wasn't happening here, it was just a policy being considered in Canada, and that the good conservatives wouldn't let that sort of thing stand in America...all the while enforcing that she was completely right to be worried...Please. It's frustrating that the people trying to ensure that this lady has health insurance, has workers comp, has Medicare when she's older, and is basically taken care of...these are the people that she has come to fear from listening to people like Beck.

It's disheartening, to say the least.

Jason said...

It seems like I was a bit off in my prediction of violence beginning in 2011. I have a little rethinking to do and will post a follow-up on Joe Stock, his implications for the movement, and even a little discussion of Marx's prediction of the Tea Party movement.

As for radicalization and mainstreaming, the typical account is that mainstreaming means moderating. Only in certain, extreme cases do radical fringes mainstream without moderating - Italian and Spanish Fascists, Russian and Chinese Communists, and the German NAZI party. What is interesting is that I don't think moderation through mainstreaming is that difficult to avoid in a populist, grassroots movement that has institutional support from mainstream figures. Rather than moderating themselves, they are radicalizing the mainstream. - ala Beck, CPAC, and local elections. The sad state is that liberals have stayed home. As yet, only if the majority of the population sees this movement as undesirable will congress remain progressive.

37 gasser said...

Radicalization is of course the professionals mission, and for those of us who are caught off guard by it, be they left or right radicalizers, and drawn from our centrist tendancies, we do need to be aware of the rhetoric, but for this writer to muse that OKC was anything but what we were led to believe, a lone gunman, is certainly beyond idiotic. To pretend that what our government did at Ruby Ridge and Waco, is what should be done in this country certainly parades his ignorance in public and reveals his own "radicalization".
John Swenson