Criticism of Centrist/Extremist Theory

Centrist/extremist theory lumps together dissidents, populists of the left and right, supremacists and terrorists as an irrational lunatic fringe.

The image of a democratic elite guarding the vital center against irrational populists has appealed strongly to many defenders of the status quo, but as a reading of US political traditions it is strikingly twisted and inconsistent.

Centrist/extremist theory denies the structural oppression at the core of US society; it obscures this country's long history of brutality and genocide; it lumps popular movements that fight oppression and supremacy with those that reinforce it.

In many ways centrist/extremist theory was a sophisticated re-statement of countersubversion theory, with slightly less reliance on authoritarian measures and slightly more reliance on other forms of social control such as mass propaganda to build a centrist consensus.

This can be seen, for example, in Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab's 1970 book, The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970, the most ambitious study of the far right written from a centrist/extremist viewpoint. Many specific discussions within this work are intelligent and perceptive, but the overall structure of the book gives a deeply distorted picture of US history.

Criticism of centrist/extremist theory gained significant attention in academia with the publication of Michael Rogin's 1967 book The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter. Since then, many other serious critics have emerged.

In a 1987 book by Rogin, Ronald Reagan, The Movie: and Other Episodes in Political Demonology, he notes that by "emphasizing mobility, interest conflict, immigrant-native rivalries, and status anxiety," Lipset and Raab obscured the United States' major divisions of race, class, gender, and institutional power. Thus their book:

"...not only makes the anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish 1920s Ku Klux Klan into its emblem of countersubversion and ignores that Klan's anti-Negro predecessor; it also treats the abolitionists as extremists but avoids proslavery agitation; it attends to the late nineteenth-century anti-Catholic American Protective Association but is silent on antilabor and anti-Chinese violence in the same period; it expatiates on alleged Populist anti-Semitism while burying the Red scares that swept through the country between 1877 and World War I; it discusses McCarthyism but not the development of a countersubversive state security apparatus; and it has nothing at all to say about women and Indians. Claiming to cover right-wing extremism as a whole, the authors actually attack movements of which they disapprove that were neither right-wing nor extremist, and they cover up a countersubversive tradition that cannot be reduced to religious prejudice, ethnic conflict, and status anxiety."48

Rogin pointed out the status anxieties of the contributors to The Radical Right themselves, their sense of vulnerability in the face of McCarthyism and nativism, their tendency to turn "their own autobiographies into American history" while neglecting the structural forces that did not threaten them.49 These men were Eastern intellectuals, mostly children of immigrants, many of them former Marxists-squarely in Joe McCarthy's line of fire. They had strong incentives to embrace and glorify the vital center. The Red Scare came on the heels of the Brown Scare of fascism, and "the great fear of the liberal intellectuals," as Kazin puts it, was that "social movements of the ill-educated could destroy what made America such a good place in which to live."50 This fear was tied to the understanding that there had been mass support-or at least acquiescence- for the Nazi genocide of Jews. Many of those who developed centrist/extremist theory had Jewish backgrounds and had legitimate historic reasons to be suspicious of some mass movements. "And a mere decade after the Holocaust," Kazin suggests, "there could be no greater fear for Jewish intellectuals than the spread of mass intolerance associated with demagogues on the Right."51 The lesson to those who developed centrist/extremist theory, many of whom would later form the neoconservative movement, was that democracy was too fragile to be trusted in the hands of the people, and it was up to elites and their institutions to preserve a vital center against the waves of maladjusted extremists from both the left and right.52 Unfortunately, while this view was convenient for centrist intellectuals and elites, it was overly self-congratulatory. As historian Leo Ribuffo put it:

"polemical convenience conflicted with historical accuracy. Grafting Brown Scare themes onto Cold War premises, authorities on extremism assumed that their political prescription, a center untainted by far right and far left, was also an accurate description of past politics."53

Ribuffo noted that the postwar "centrists suffered from inflated expectations regarding elites. While repeating the truism that persons threatened economically and psychologically were more likely than their comfortable neighbors to assail scapegoats, leading students of extremism missed the connection between far right activists and irresponsible, intolerant elites."54 For instance, interwar far right leaders "borrowed their antiradical rhetoric from presidents, senators, attorneys general, corporate executives, and labor leaders," according to Ribuffo, who suggested that proponents of the "vital center" romanticized elites as much as those on the left who romanticized "The People."55 It's striking, for instance, that Daniel Bell offered Theodore Roosevelt, of all people, as a prime example of the center's "pragmatic give-and-take" politics.56 This was the same Roosevelt who called for labor organizer Eugene Debs to be "placed before a stone wall and shot," denounced White women refusing to have children as "criminal[s] against the race," and praised the "fighting instinct" of "the mighty civilized races," "which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway."57 Theodore Roosevelt would doubtless have applauded Bell's assertion that, "The politics of civility...has been the achievement of only a small group of countries-those largely within an Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian political tradition."58

In praising Teddy Roosevelt as a model of tolerance and compromise, Bell was referring to Roosevelt's behavior toward other affluent White men. Roosevelt's treatment of workers, women, and "barbarian peoples" did not need to be considered in assessing his political demeanor because, in Bell's framework, these groups were of marginal importance. Not being full players in the centrist game of give-and-take, they were outside the realm of "real" political action.

The very categories centrist/extremist scholarship used to distinguish the center from the extremes were arbitrary and inconsistent. If "irrationality" and failure to understand practical limits are the marks of the extremist, then anyone who preaches the Horatio Alger myth of upward mobility would surely qualify.59 If "paranoid" conspiracy thinking is the test, then Franklin Roosevelt was an extremist, since he believed that bankers secretly controlled the US government.60 Similarly, when the patrician conservative Henry Cabot Lodge described William Jennings Bryan's 1896 presidential campaign as "a well-drawn and carefully thought out scheme based on socialistic and anarchistic theories imported from Europe" he showed that conspiracist paranoia has been very much at home in the political center.61

At the same time, the image of right-wing extremism as an irrational popular movement obscures the fact that rightist movements generally embody concrete, "rational" interests, and that elites often play a key role in them. For example, Bell and his colleagues saw McCarthyism as a pathological mass revolt against democratic institutions and leaders. But as Rogin pointed out, "the masses did not levy an attack on their political leaders; the attack was made by a section of the political elite against another and was nurtured by the very elites under attack."62 Hofstadter, Lipset, and others, arguing that economic and political factors could not account for McCarthyism, turned to "status anxiety" and other psychological explanations. In the process, they hid the perfectly normal power struggle involved-particularly a comeback effort by rightist business forces against the Eastern elite liberals who had unseated them in the 1930s.63 Centrist/extremist theory insulated the state, corporate interest, and bipartisan elites from criticism.

Sara Diamond is critical of centrist/extremist theory for erroneously labeling the intra-elite power struggle during the McCarthy period as populist, and then labeling as "extremist" the electoral right-wing social movements that emerged after the McCarthy period:

"Popular right-wing groups like the John Birch Society emerged only in the late 1950s, well after political elites had turned the pursuit of "communist subversion" into a national religion. By then, polite society was keen to depict wild-eyed Birchers as "extremists," even as they played by democratic rules and helped win the [1964] Republican [presidential] nomination for Barry Goldwater."64

Demographic and attitudinal studies of Birch Society members and Goldwater supporters showed they were not marginal misfits but had above average education and income and were over-represented with professionals such as doctors and lawyers.65 Himmelstein argued that right wing organizing drives "were not episodic eruptions of mindless anger and pain. They were part of the sustained growth of a continuous social movement with a clear, systematic ideology that led ultimately to the New Right and the New Religious Right."66

Centrist/extremist theory ignores real power struggles in the society. It stifles a healthy public debate over how to unravel systems of oppression, allows individuals to ignore their own complicity in oppressive behavior, and obscures the supremacist forces woven into our society's central institutions. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism-along with other forms of supremacist ideology-are not the exclusive domain of marginal and militant organized hate groups, but are domiciled in mainstream culture and politics.

James A. Aho points out how easy it is "to dismiss racism and religious bigotry as products of craziness or stupidity," but that such a view is not accurate. According to Aho, "Evidence from field research on Pacific Northwest racists and bigots shows that in the main they are indistinguishable from their more conventional peers, intellectually and educationally."67 Aho also observes that with the exception of those who engaged in politically-motivated murders, the racists and bigots he studied "appear within the bounds of normal, psychologically."

The centrist/extremist approach to the racist Right has not "abolished the movement, nor diminished racism in general, and may, in fact, unwittingly support racist beliefs," suggests Abby L. Ferber. "While the focus is on the fringe, mainstream, everyday racism remains unexamined." Ferber argues that a discussion is needed on the "points of similarity between white supremacist discourse and mainstream discourse," especially since "White supremacist discourse gains power precisely because it rearticulates mainstream racial narratives."68 Raphael S. Ezekiel agrees, noting that organized White racism exploits feelings of "lonely resentment."69 It does this by weaving together ideologies already present in mainstream culture: "white specialness, the biological significance of `race,' the primacy of power in human relations" along with "the feeling of being cheated."70

The continued uncritical reliance on centrist/extremist theory has hampered the development of new and more effective ways of understanding and challenging prejudice, discrimination, and oppression; especially given the development of new and more sophisticated strategies and tactics by groups promoting ethnocentrism, xenophobia, supremacy and fascism.

At the same time, centrist/extremist theory has directed attention away from the long tradition of countersubversion in government agencies such as the FBI. Rogin, a key critic of centrist/extremist theory, considered the "development of a countersubversive state security apparatus" an important feature in US society. Richard O. Curry and Thomas M. Brown noted that "Sociological and psychological interpretations...used by scholars to explain the appeal of anticonspiracy crusades...are open to the objection that they make fears of conspiracy solely the work of an extremist, usually right-wing fringe of society," when such "(f)ears of subversion are very much a part of mainstream politics."71

If you were to ask the average law enforcement officer or prosecutor whether or not they subscribe to countersubversion theory or centrist/extremist theory you would most likely get a quizzical stare. Within government circles these analytical models are not known by name, they are described as representing "common knowledge."

Political troublemakers are "extremists" out to subvert the legitimate government by "rabble-rousing." That there is a history or ideological content to these notions is seldom, if ever, examined. Yet these analytical models play a powerful role in how prosecutors develop their theory of the case and their reconstruction of the events that led to the defendant being in court facing charges.


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