The Common Good

Tea Party Militias?: Telling Mainstream Conservatives from Right Wing Extremists

100304-tea-party-militiaThe Southern Poverty Law Center has issued a frightening report on the explosive growth of extremist organizations on the radical right. It is hard to know how to account for this phenomenon. How do we distinguish, for instance, between mainstream conservatism and right wing fanaticism? As Mark Potok of the SPLC writes, "The 'tea parties' and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories, and racism."

Suspicion of the federal government appears to be at an all-time high. A recent CNN poll showed that a majority of Americans (including "37 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Independents and nearly 7 in 10 Republicans") believe that "the federal government poses a threat to the rights of Americans."

You have to be careful with numbers. Anyone conversant with the covert work perpetrated by federal entities like the CIA and the FBI over the years understands instinctively that federal power has always had its dark side. This likely explains why more than a third of Democrats are concerned about the feds.

But much of the rage and resentment we have witnessed in recent months is rooted in dark political fantasy with very little basis in fact. Notice, for instance, that the Tea Party folk, although they have no particular love for Wall Street, are inclined to blame Congress instead of the banks. The unswerving assumption is that free enterprise is good and government is bad. This dogma makes it impossible for the Tea Party zealots to understand what's going on. It wasn't the government that created the current economic meltdown. Government failed us by doing too little to regulate Wall Street and the financial industry, too much regulation was the least of our worries.

Please give the SPLC report your careful attention and let us know what you make of all this.

Alan Bean is the executive director of Friends of Justice. Click here to read his blog.

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