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Frameworks for Conceptualizing the US Political Right:

Centrist/Extremist Theory

The first foray into establishing a broad social science outline for studying the political right was centrist/extremist theory which arrived with the 1955 publication of a collection of essays titled The New American Right edited by Daniel Bell. Eight years later The New American Right collection was expanded and republished under the title, The Radical Right. Contributors to the expanded volume included Bell, Alan F. Westin, Richard Hofstadter, Seymour Martin Lipset, Earl Raab, Peter Viereck, Herbert H. Hyman, Talcott Parsons, David Riesman, and Nathan Glazer. Not all of the authors shared all of the analytical views outlined in the volume, but since 1955 a number of books appeared that either elaborated on or paralleled the general themes of centrist/extremist theory first sketched in The New American Right.7

Post WWII social science, with the memory of European fascist movements fresh in the public mind, had already mapped out a framework for studying collective behavior that stressed the irrational and destructive nature of popular mobilizations. Centrist/extremist theory, especially as outlined by Lipset, Raab, Viereck, and Bell, merged collective behavior theory with emerging theories about social psychology and authoritarian personality types. The assumption was that socially-constructive "pluralists" who were tolerant of different political ideas always gravitated toward the center of the political system. This is why centrist/extremist theory is sometimes called the pluralist school of social science.

Under centrist/extremist theory, dissident movements of the left and right were portrayed as composed of outsiders-politically marginal people who have no connection to the mainstream electoral system or nodes of government or corporate power. Their anxiety is heightened by fears that their economic or social status is slipping. Under great stress, these psychologically-fragile people snap into a mode of irrational political hysteria, and as they embrace an increasingly paranoid style they make militant and unreasonable demands. Because they are unstable they can become dangerous and violent. Their extremism places them far outside the legitimate political process, which is located in the center where "pluralists" conduct democratic debates. The solution prescribed by centrist/extremist theory is to marginalize the dissidents as radicals and dangerous extremists. Their demands need not be taken seriously. Law enforcement can then be relied upon to break up any criminal conspiracies by subversive radicals that threaten the social order.

There was a period when authors and major human relations groups used a more complex analysis of right-wing groups. From the 1930s through the 1940s journalist George Seldes utilized a progressive analysis that examined the reactionary corporate interests in the US and their relationship to support for European fascism in the interwar period, and their attack on organized labor and civil rights in the post WWII period.

In the 1956 book Cross-Currents, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith before its conversion to centrist/extremist analysis, authors Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein examined the complexity of the right without using the term "radical right" and using the term "extreme" in its proper usage as an adjective rather than "extremism" as a pejorative descriptor:

Three overlapping forces seem to be coalescing as we begin the presidential election year 1956-the hate groups, welded to one another by the anti-Semitism they all exploit; latter-day know-nothings who in their fear of communism oppose civil liberties as a weakness in our ramparts; extreme political reactionaries who are unable or unwilling to recognize the bigots among those joining their movement.

The three forces are unified on many issues, including opposition to the present programs and leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties, to the United Nations and its UNESCO, to modern education as we know it in the United States, and to the socio-economic changes that have come on the domestic scene over the last two decades.

"...we have examined (those) in the field of professional bigotry, the mechanics of their operations, and the ugly substance of their propaganda. We have seen the panic created by the know-nothings and how they have hurt people. To complete the picture, we should direct our attention to the activities of the reactionary movement, probing for a moment its motivations, the character of its contribution to current events, and its impact on our nation.

After centrist/extremist theory became the major social science and human relations model, the term "reactionary" almost vanished from discussions of the US political right. This has had real consequences. Centrist/extremist theory ignores real power struggles in the society. It is a status-quo oriented frame of reference that wants dissidents of all stripes to shut up and sit down. 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 anti-Semitism-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.

Matthew N. Lyons puts it this way:

==="While right wing populist movements in the US have attracted great attention in recent years, they have been widely misunderstood. Many liberal and centrist critics portray these movements as an irrational fringe phenomenon at odds with the democratic mainstream of U. S. politics, and look to the government to crack down on them. This viewpoint hides the oppression and inequality at the core of U. S. society, the links between many right-wing movements and economic/political elites, the complex mix of legitimate and illegitimate grievances underlying right-wing "paranoia," and the danger of increasing state repression."

==="Liberal and conservative writers have used labels such as "extremist," "paranoid," "lunatic," and "radical right" to highlight this division, and often suggest an underlying affinity between the right and a radical (or "paranoid") left. This centrist/extremist doctrine, as we will call it, hides the fact that the "democratic" status quo in the US is built on systems of inequality and oppression, and that right wing bigotry and scapegoating are an integral part of this order."

Michael Rogin's 1967 book The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter marked the first major academic challenge to pluralist/extremist theory. In a later book Rogin challenged the basic utility and accuracy of pluralist/extremist theory because it:

==="...not only makes the anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish Ku Klux Klan into its emblem of countersubversion and ignores the 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 Scare 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.8 "

Matthew N. Lyons observes:

==="[T]he image of right-wing extremism as an irrational popular movement obscures the fact that such movements generally embody "rational" concrete interests, and that elites often play a key role in them. For example, the pluralists saw McCarthyism as a pathological mass revolt against democratic institutions and leaders. 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 business nationalists against the Eastern elite liberals who had unseated them in the 1930s..9 "

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."10 "

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.11 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."12

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."13 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."14

Raphael S. Ezekiel agrees, noting that organized White racism exploits feelings of "lonely resentment."15 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."16

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Overviews of the Three Conceptual Models

 

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