Challenging Centrist Extremist Theory

By Chip Berlet

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 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 pluralist/extremist theory first sketched in The New American Right.

Centrist/extremist theory, especially as outlined by Lipset, Raab, Viereck, and Bell, sees dissident movements of the left and right as composed of outsiders-politically marginal who have no connection to the mainstream electoral system or nodes of government or corporate power. Social and economic stress snaps these psychologically-fragile people into a mode of 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.

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. 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."

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."

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. 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."

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

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.

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