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Frameworks for Conceptualizing the US Political
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
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:
Matthew N. Lyons observes:
==="...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 "
==="[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  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