Ideological Frameworks and Assumptions Regarding Dissident Social Movements

Originally Prepared for the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment Symposium on Conspiracies:
Real Grievances, Paranoia, and Mass Movements
Portland, Oregon
by Chip Berlet

Two social science models used by the U.S. government--"countersubversion theory" and "centrist/extremist theory"--wrongly assume there is criminal intent and activity behind all mass movements that are critical of the government.1

Centrist/extremist theory (sometimes called Classical Theory" or the "Pluralist School), 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.

The most effective mechanism for inflaming conspiracist scapegoating throughout US history has been apocalyptic forms of right wing populism, especially when coupled with millennial expectation. This dynamic has been obscured because right wing populism has been trivialized by much academic research, which branded it an "extremist" phenomena among a "lunatic fringe" of the "radical right" embracing a "paranoid style." This idea is a legacy from the first foray into establishing a broad social science outline for studying right wing populism--a school of analysis dubbed by critics as centrist/extremist theory.1

Paranoid-sounding conspiracy theories promoting scapegoating have been spread by demagogues in times of social and economic crisis throughout US history, sometimes accompanying the rise of mass movements mobilized by the US political right.2

How human rights and social justice activists organize against these scapegoating movements depends to a large extent on the analytical model used to analyze them. Put another way, the effectiveness of human rights and social justice activists is determined in part by the accuracy and utility of the model used to analyze conspiratorial mass movements of the right.

Overviews of the Three Conceptual Models

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